The Same Heart

Vineyard-based documentary filmmakers Len and Georgia Morris are completing The Same Heart, the third in a trilogy of films on poverty and children’s human rights. Their work filming child labor and street children in countries all over the world led them to start a website, Media Voices for Children, focusing on children’s human rights as a way of creating a community of interest and advocating for children. With the staunch support of the Martha’s Vineyard community, the Kenyan Schoolhouse program, a project of Media Voices, has educated hundreds of children in Kenya, including many of the children Len first met while filming for Stolen Childhoods and Rescuing Emmanuel. Len has also advocated for children in hearings at the U.S. Capitol, and received the 2011 Iqbal Masih Award for the Elimination of Child Labor. For more information on the film, see

I first heard the phrase “the same heart” at Huruma, an orphanage in Karen, Kenya, when Pastor Isaac Kamau — known as Papa Isaac, the father figure for 150 children — explained how he called on his biological children to accept their new brothers and sisters: “I told them if you have the same heart to treat them as your brothers and sisters, God will bless you and your children. If you help them now, they will be there for you when you need help.”

4947#3When Papa passed away suddenly, hundreds of kids came to his funeral. Today, Huruma is run by his son and daughters. There are new dormitories, a medical clinic, and volunteers from all over the world.

While filming in Sauri, a remote village in western Kenya stalked by hunger and AIDS, we met a young community organizer who also used the term “the same heart.” Geoffrey Bakhuya had grown up nearby and knew hunger as a child. He watched helplessly as his neighbors buried their children, his friends, or their parents from HIV/AIDS. He told us, “It changed me and made me want to help others.”

Geoffrey’s life became a calling to organize communities to help themselves. He would become one of the main characters in The Same Heart, showing us local programs to address practical needs in the slum of Kibera in Nairobi, organized by the residents themselves. His message to us: “We must all share the same heart to fight poverty. Like drops of rain that become a mighty river, there’s power in numbers.”

This notion of sharing the same heart became clear to my wife, Georgia, and me as we visited Kenyan schools filled with students the Vineyard community has supported for a dozen years. Hungry children we’d first met picking coffee or living on the streets were now studying to become engineers, architects, dentists, and chemists, because Islanders shared the same heart and helped educate kids living over seven thousand miles away.

Connection is hardly a new idea. Africans use the term “ubuntu,” or as South African social rights activist and former Anglican bishop Desmond Tutu puts it, “A person is a person through other persons. I need you to become all you can become so that I can become all I can be.” Connection isn’t simply about the flood of information on the web or sharing our lives on Facebook. Like anger or love, trying to share in the humanity of others is as basic as breath. Africans call it “the web of life, stretching back to our ancestors who are hovering and watching.”

At a meal or celebration, they’ll pour some of their drink onto the ground and break off a piece of their bread to share with the spirits. In this spirit world, there is no escaping shared responsibility to humankind. Former South African president Nelson Mandela joined us all to that web of life when he reminded us, “You must judge a civilization by the way it treats its children.”

I like the idea that we are accountable. That our parents, and their parents, our ancestors by family, tribe, religion, race, nationality, DNA, or common humanity, are all in this together on this fragile and limited orb we share. But what would their reaction be to the world we have built and our treatment of poor children? Kenya’s first Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Wangari Maathai, told us, “If our ancestors who couldn’t read or write, who walked about in skins, were to return today, they wouldn’t believe that children are living at dumpsites, that children are raising children on the streets, or picking coffee covered in pesticides.”

BONDED (SLAVE) CHILD LABOURER LOADING CLAY ON HIS HEAD TO CARRY TO THE DRYING FIELDS.Those images and countless others have been our work as filmmakers these past fifteen years. Our hearts have ached filming children working like animals, used as human slaves, picking our fruits and vegetables here in the United States, unable to stay in school because they must help their families survive.

Now, when I look at our films, Stolen Childhoods (2004) and Rescuing Emmanuel (2009), I remember each child and their circumstances and stand amazed at their resilience.

I have raged about, filled with anger, asking our representatives in Washington: Where is the help? What can be done differently? How can so much inequality and indifference allow us to ignore the basic needs of children, all children?

These questions are at the center of our newest documentary, The Same Heart. A cast of Nobel laureates, economists, politicians, parents, and children offer ideas, some small and some revolutionary. At the center of it all is a conversation, a series of questions really, about fairness and inequality.

AIDS is still a plague in the world. Why not make life-saving AIDS drugs free, as we have done with malaria and tuberculosis drugs?

Why not levy a tax on speculative financial transactions and raise hundreds of billions of aid dollars a year by taxing the behavior of banks that plunged the world economy into chaos? Ending poverty for a billion children, one transaction at a time.
Why not pay people a living wage, so they can support their children and not rely on charity or government?

How can our politicians justify cutting programs for children and families at a time when fifty million Americans live
in poverty?

How much do we pledge to combat poverty, and how much is actually spent?

Why would a billionaire pay a lower tax rate than his
cleaning lady?

How are these questions connected to the welfare of children, not just on the other side of the world, but here on the Vineyard, where 584 families depend on food stamps and over 1,000 people received food from five different food-assistance organizations last winter?

tc india 1426 #23aMost importantly, what is our actual accountability to children, all children . . . to the seven million that die of preventable causes, hunger and diseases we have cures for, every year — almost twenty thousand a day . . . to the seventeen million children who live in poverty here in the United States, the richest country on earth? If you don’t believe the numbers, cut them in half. It’s still one of the worst human rights crises of our time.

Bono, the rock star turned poverty messiah, who has singlehandedly forced us to confront global poverty with his ONE campaign, has put it with simple elegance: “Where you were born shouldn’t determine whether you live or die.”

I asked Princeton professor and ethicist Peter Singer if we should feel responsible for the welfare of children we’ll never know or see.

His response was a parable:
A child enters a pond to play and suddenly is in too deep, struggling for air. You are on the shore watching. There is no one else there to witness. You are wearing new clothes, new expensive shoes. To save the child, you must enter the pond and ruin your shoes, make yourself wet and uncomfortable. What do you do?

The Same Heart attempts an answer to his question.

Singer’s university students are unanimous that they’d dive into the pond to save the child. Forget the clothes, their new shoes. But the point of the parable goes farther than saving a single child.
Singer’s response illustrates that we’re all morally accountable for what we do, and just as accountable for what we don’t do. The life of a child is of equal value, whatever the race, and the loss of a life is just as connected to us here on the Vineyard, as in Detroit or on the other side of the world.
I couldn’t agree more.

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