The Exchange: Six Faces of The Gambia

Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture

I am so happy to share an incredible documentary with you today. The Exchange: Six Faces of The Gambia, is an intercultural journey to The Gambia with Journeyman Film Company. It is an incredible short (23 minutes) documentary that shares a glimpse into the lives of six people - and teaches us that we have a lot to learn from each other. Brilliant photography, compelling stories, and the lure of learning about others is a huge draw for me. I have seen this movie four times already, and LOVE it. The Exchange - Six Faces of The Gambia was launched at the Atlantic Film Festival! Now the film and comprehensive study guide go on to schools in Halifax, Sydney, and Charlottetown as part of a Global Studies Curriculum.


The Exchange - Six Faces of The Gambia

Shooting with Hussein as he catches up with friends playing soccer on the beach


We were lucky enough to sit down and talk with Mathew Welsh, head of production at Journeyman Film Company. He grew up in Alberta and now calls Halifax home, but he still wears an Oilers jersey proudly. Anthropology was his main focus at University, and he’ll gladly talk to you about the link between that field and filmmaking. His last documentary for TV was Ted Nolan: Behind the Bench. His best known work is the compelling, Gemini Award winning documentary Breakaway – seen all over the world. His beginner level Spanish – and intermediate Salsa dancing skills – helped him direct on two documentaries shot in South America. He has worked in production for almost 20 years. Mathew enjoys bringing his documentary eye to the work he does for Journeyman’s clients.

Here's what Mathew has to say...



WE:  Please tell us about your new film, The Exchange: Six Faces of The Gambia...

MW: The Exchange is a short documentary film that introduces a Western audience to six compelling people living in The Gambia – people who don’t fit the stereotypes we might have about people from Africa. The six are not compelling because they are somehow extraordinary. They’re compelling to a Western audience because we can relate to them and learn from them. The film doesn’t seek to “inspire” us with extreme stories of perseverance or hope in a context of dire circumstances – poverty, disease, war, and other extreme situations that we hear about in the news coming out of Africa. Rather, these six are ordinary local heroes that you can find everywhere in West Africa. Resilient, passionate, educated, with strong ideas about changes they’d like to see in their town or in the world. They are motivated as much to improve their own lives as the lives of the family and community around them. But sensing the degree to which each is determined to share his or her knowledge – to “give back” – is where a Western audience begins to see the light in this brief documentary journey.

The experience of making The Exchange was a bit of a whirlwind.







WE:  Can you please tell us more about your film company, Journeyman Film

MW: Journeyman Film Company is a small production company based in Halifax, Nova Scotia, that helps clients communicate – for training, public awareness campaigns, social marketing and all that. (You can check out our website at -- and you can read our blogs from The Gambia there.) The company is run by me, Mathew Welsh, and I have a passion for and a solid background in making documentaries – my documentary Breakaway (about two survivors of brain injury) won the highest possible award for a television documentary in Canada – a Donald Brittain Award at the Gemini Awards in 2001. Making documentaries alone is a tough way to make a living, so I decided to build up my company by offering a documentary filmmaking approach to communications clients. As I see it, communications always comes back to telling people’s stories. In the last two years we’ve done work to promote our province, training work for Canada’s Navy, public health motivational work, and earlier this year, the project in The Gambia for Nova Scotia Gambia Association. In the next year or so our company will move back into producing documentary for general audiences, along with a growing business in client work.



WE: What was the genesis of The Exchange?

MW: We saw a Request for Proposals last year for a project in Africa and I jumped at the chance to apply because I knew it was right up my alley. I had been to Africa when I was 17 and 19. At 17, it was my first big travel experience – from Canada to Zambia – and it left a huge impression on me.

The Nova Scotia Gambia Association wanted a film produced in West Africa that would show the positive side of life there. They wanted a short film that would demonstrate to a Canadian audience that good things are happening there, and that it’s worth continuing a relationship with that part of the world. It’s a part of the world that easily falls off our radar when it comes to aid, business, travel – and it seems the only stories coming from the continent have to do with AIDS, war, poverty and corruption.

We pitched the NSGA on taking a documentary story telling approach to this project, and they hired us on. When we met with them, we stated that we didn’t want to do an NGO-type film that would just sit on some shelf, or play to “the converted” at occasional screenings. We do work with an audience in mind, always.

We’re pleased that The Exchange plays like a documentary, even though it was produced for a client. And we’re pleased that it’s now being used in high schools with an incredible 100 page study guide.

Here’s a quote from Andrea MacDonald, the executive director, on what they wanted the film to do: “As an organization, NSGA works with youth and communities who are facing all types of ongoing challenges including lack of resources, life threatening epidemics, and political instability. But with this film we wanted people here in Canada to see that these countries also have their own resources, visions, and innovative approaches to overcoming these challenges.   I don’t want to downplay the struggles facing people in Africa, which are very real, but rather to highlight that support from international donors should be on their terms, not ours.”


The Exchange - Six Faces of The Gambia

Drama Queens! Matida hams it up while Abbie and Fatou look on -- members of the NSGA Drama Troupe.



WE:  How did you choose these six "faces of Gambia"?

MW: Good question! Generally I like to have a very developed plan for shooting. I spend a lot of time researching and scripting the work we do for clients. With The Exchange, we knew that the stories would depend entirely on the individuals chosen for the film. We had to meet the people in person and go with our instincts. So when we landed in The Gambia in March, 2009, we didn’t really know what we were going to shoot. We had two weeks to find and shoot our project! We decided to spend a week meeting people, and then a week shooting.

We had some names to start with. We had our NSGA colleague Baba Jallow, who works and lives in The Gambia, helping us with some initial research. We asked him to find us a few people like artists or carpenters or mechanics. We knew we wanted people who worked with their hands and who were problem solvers. So when we landed, Baba had a list of about 9 people for us to meet. From that list, Sheriffo, the carpenter, made it into the film. He’s a strong character and leads the film off.

Just days before leaving for The Gambia, as coincidence would have it, I went to a Gambia “independence day” party in Halifax where I met a bunch of young Gambians studying here at universities in Halifax. I explained what I was doing and whom I was hoping to meet there, and lo and behold, I got contact names for Mr. Chaw, Hussein Diab, and Adele N’jie, and all three ended up in the film!

While we were at the NSGA office in The Gambia, we met some of the workers there, including some dynamic members of the Drama Troupe. Abbie jumped out at us as a great character, and we really wanted a young female person in the film.

And last, we knew that an “environmentalist” would likely appeal to a young North American high school audience, so we went to a nature reserve just outside the capital city of Banjul, and we met with Malang Jambang – it took a lot of convincing but he agreed to participate. He really wanted to make sure that this project was indeed going to benefit The Gambia in some way, as he was mindful of how he used his time and energy.

During our one week research phase, Oren and I would get back to our apartment on the beach each night, grab some dinner and discuss the characters we’d met. We were looking for that ONE story that would carry a short film, but we had trouble deciding on one. Mr. Chaw was supremely compelling to both me and Oren, but we doubted we could fully capture his story in a week of shooting, and doubted that we’d have the kind of access we wanted with him (since he was such a busy guy); and we questioned whether a 76 year-old character would hold the interest of a primarily high school audience. But we were wrong on that last point! The word back from test audiences in schools is that they dig Mr. Chaw!

After doing a lot of big-paper brainstorming at the kitchen table, we settled on our six. We then proceeded to shoot about 28 hours of footage in 6 days. We were shooting right up until heading to the airport!


The Exchange - Six Faces of The Gambia

Mathew gets to know Mr. Chaw during a Banjul evening, the day after we arrived in The Gambia.




WE:  How do North Americans usually perceive West Africa, in your experience?

MW: I think North Americans have only vague notions of regions of Africa, instead, thinking of it as one whole. But if someone is aware of “West Africa” they probably hear about violence over oil in Nigeria, or “blood diamonds” in Sierra Leone; corrupt “war criminals” like Charles Taylor in Liberia; or they might be aware of historical ties to the slave trade countries on the West Coast (Alex Haley’s Roots character Kunta Kinte came from The Gambia); and they might be aware of the dry Sahara; some might know about the fantastic traditional and popular music coming out of Mali or Senegal.

I was lucky in high school to have a very progressive English teacher who made a Penguin Collection of African Poetry one of our required texts. So I can remember doing a project in grade 12 about a Senegalese poet. We also read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.

Nonetheless, even though I had traveled to Africa at age 17, I am, not immune to the media coverage out of Africa, if we hear stories at all, and many of us cannot help but have a general perception of Africa as a “basket case” – a place full of need and few resources. A place of helplessness and hopelessness.



WE:  What can North Americans learn from West Africans?

MW: The main thing I was thinking about as I flew home was how much “social capital” they have in The Gambia. Social Capital is a term that I learned while doing another video project on Population Health - a view of health care delivery that considers all the "social determinants of health": education, economy, environment, and something called "social capital" -- which is what you have when you are connected to your community, your family, your friends -- the whole web of people who care about you. In The Gambia, what we saw was immense social capital.

People live in extended families, live in close proximity, share limited resources. In the Gambia they don't seem to have homelessness as we do in our cities, nor elderly people who are sick and alone at home, not eating well, suffering falls and not taking medication properly. According to my Population Health client, the fact that the elderly live alone in our society is one of the biggest challenges for and strains on the health care system in Nova Scotia.

It's a bit overly simplistic, I know, but my sense is that in The Gambia, the elderly are highly respected and valued in a way that we don't see here. Old folks are pillars of the community, give history and context to their family and community life. The elders maintain their social capital. They have real value. They don't have a fat RRSP in the bank to take care of them in retirement, but they have instead this complex web of people who will take care. And those people who take care of them also get value from the social capital flowing back to them from the elderly in the form of continuity, wisdom, perspective and knowledge.

It's a richness that most Canadians can only envy. The stock market can crash, and older Gambians still have their support network.



WE: How can we as travelers and as intercultural learners give back?

MW: We can travel intelligently. We can look hard to see that the North American way is not necessarily the best way, and it’s certainly not the only way of adapting and rising to the challenges in the human experience. Not just saying this in a way that pays lip service to a “rainbow coloured, multicultural” world – but really keenly observing the different ways of interpreting and framing the world. We don’t go to West Africa to see how to help them become more like us. We go to learn from them.

We need to return home and put those lessons into practice, and let people know what we’ve learned and how we came to that knowledge.

Encourage young people to travel, to learn languages and to get off the beaten path.


The Exchange - Six Faces of The Gambia

Mr. Chaw gives us the tour of his town, warts and all.



WE:  What has been the audience response to The Exchange?

MW: It showed at the Atlantic Film Festival and lots of people commented that it showed a side of Africa that was new. I’ve showed it to Africans who are pleased with the way it portrays The Gambia in a new, true way.

It’s now being used in high schools in maritime Canada, with a 100 page study guide, and the feedback I’ve heard so far is that students are saying this is something they would watch “even if they didn’t have to” – and as I mentioned above, they are fascinated by Mr. Chaw, which tells me that there is an innate human inclination to give older people the respect that is their due, even if our society doesn’t seem to work that way now.



WE:  Is there anything else you'd like to share with us?

MW: One thing we played with on this film was using music that was not “African” since we wanted to give it a mood and flow that felt subtly “familiar” to a North American audience. I’m wondering if that was a good call?


The Exchange: Six Faces of The Gambia

Baba Jallow juggles our shoot schedule while Oren (sound recording and editor) chills at lunch.

WE: Thanks so very much, Mathew! I have been so impressed with The Exchange, and am happy to recommend it to our Wandering Educators.

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All photos courtesy and copyright Journeyman Film