Reflections on 'Kunyumba'

By Danny Whear, Global Head of Brand and Content and Malcolm Shead, MEAL team lead.

At ShelterBox we believe that every family deserves a place to call home after disaster or conflict.


We work closely with disaster-affected communities to provide the tools to help people begin their own process of rebuilding.

We also understand that every disaster is different which is why we have developed a flexible approach and why we listen to and learn from the communities we work with to make sure we provide the right support.


This process is led by Malcolm Shead and our Monitoring, Evaluation, Accountability and Learning (MEAL) team who seek to understand whether our aid has made a significant impact to the well-being of the families we’ve reached

But why do we need to do this?

People caught up in distress are at the heart of everything we do.

This means that it’s not enough that we provide emergency shelter aid, but we also make sure the emergency shelter needs are met for families short-term.

The feedback we get from affected communities guides the way that we improve as an organisation. As well as playing a vital part in continually improving our aid offering and approach, this process also allows us to more meaningfully report on the impact that we, as an organisation have.

In its simplest terms, we aim to better communicate the impact we had on the people we were trying to help.

While our experienced MEAL team draw upon a wealth of sector experience, we try to ensure that our approach to impact reporting remains simple to explain.

How ShelterBox aims to report impact

Thanks to the support of our donors around the world, ShelterBox works with partners to provide aid items and training which meets critical shelter needs.

This seeks to ensure that people are warm, dry, and safe, and as a family they have access to water, and the stabilisation of routines by being back at home.

We believe that the provision of these essential items leads to physical and emotional changes in the lives of disaster affected families, which in turn, helps to create the right conditions for self-recovery to occur.

This is the model against which we aim to report our impact, as one part of our bigger theory of change.


With this in mind we set out to develop a project that would talk about our impact in a way that was more creative and compelling, and remained honest and evidence-based.

To do this we brought together our MEAL and Brand and content teams, to reimagine the way in which we shared information about our response in Malawi, following Cyclone Idai.

We chose film and photography as the main mediums to tell this story, intrigued by how we could transpose the techniques of monitoring and evaluation to these more traditionally mass-audience communication channels. It was important for us that we shared the stories of the communities we met in their own words, which is why we felt that film would be such a powerful tool.

The result was our short film and photography series: Kunyumba – Home.

Cyclone Idai

On the 8th March 2019, Cyclone Idai brought heavy and prolonged rainfall to southern Malawi, causing devastation that separated parents and children, ripped up homes and destroyed livelihoods.

We worked with our partner Habitat for Humanity Malawi to provide emergency shelter for families affected the most. Nearly 2,000 families received shelter kits, water filters and carriers, mosquito nets, solar lights, and blankets.

Kunyumba looks to show the impact of our response, as told through the words of the families we met.


Drawing upon some of the social science techniques regularly employed by our MEAL team, the project was orientated around a series of interviews.

These were unstructured, with no strict interview schedule or set questions prior to arriving.

This methodology was important for ensuring that our preconceptions did not restrict the way that the community told us their story. Conversations did, however, follow the chronology of events (before, during and since the disaster and the future). The data from these interviews was then analysed according to four themes. These were:

– The place and space of home
– Community
– Access to livelihoods
– Skills and knowledge


people sitting in circle talking in malawi


The four themes were identified through previous evaluations of our work and describe the way that the provision of emergency shelter can create the right conditions for self-recovery.

When undertaking evaluations of humanitarian work, it is common for interviewers to pose questions such as ‘what did you do with the item that our organisation gave you?’. This approach can make it difficult to get a balanced answer, with the respondent keenly aware of what the interviewer would like to hear.

During this project, the respondents weren’t asked questions that directly linked to the work of ShelterBox. Instead, the interviews asked broad questions about experiences and emotions.

The aim of the approach was to enable the community to tell the story of recovery, and afterwards for the team to find evidence that pinpointed the contribution of ShelterBox to recovery. This approach is based on a technique called Outcome Harvesting.

To produce the Kunyumba film, we felt that it would be favourable to have one family (Stephano and Mary) telling their story.

When editing down the family’s interview transcript to fit a six-minute film, we used the wider body of data as a framework to ensure that the final narrative was representative and proportional to the experiences of the community as a whole.

Cross-team collaboration

It was interesting to bring together two very different* teams to collaborate on this project. Early on we co-created shared objectives which were vital to navigating many of the unique questions that would arise through developing the project. Many of these questions were rooted in the different approaches typically associated with both monitoring and evaluation interviewing and filming people for video projects.

With our aims set on truthfully conveying the responses of our interviewees we discussed the approach for how we would record people, who (and how) we would ask questions, whether we could ask people to answer questions multiple times (often used as a way to finesse the response), environmental considerations such as the effect having cameras present has upon an interviewee’s response and even how many people should be present during the interviews.

This meant we were constantly balancing decisions that would give the most honest and evidence-based responses against what was needed to create a striking and engaging piece of video. Normalising these conversations early in the development process meant that everyone was aligned around our shared intentions and helped to navigate any potential frictions that may have arisen.

We were blessed to have a shared vision with our filmmaker for this project, Benn Berkeley of Gokatta film, whose passion and knowledge helped us to develop this experimental concept from the outset.


photographer shows children photos in malawi


We used cinematic shots of the community and captured ambient sound to convey a sense of place, aerial drone footage to convey movement and geography, and used the genuine audio from the interviews (in their native language with subtitles) to carry the narrative of the piece. We hope that what we created achieved our objectives and stayed true to our intentions.

Recognising the emerging trend towards slower storytelling and online audiences increasing appetite for longer form storytelling, we set out to explore how we could share these stories in a more expansive video.

The result was a six-minute edit as well as a number of short cuts for alternative uses (the film will be shared across social channels as well as in cinemas). Our hope is that this will give each theme the room to breathe and the chance for viewers to really get a sense of place.

We were also very honoured to collaborate with acclaimed photographer Sian Davey on this project.

We had long been fans of Sian’s work, drawn to her subtle use of natural light and her ability to capture moments shared between families. Renowned for her exploration of psychological and social landscapes within her work and a process that has been described as ‘oscillating between invisibility and visibility’, Sian felt like a great fit for this families-focussed project.

Unlike many of our past projects, Sian also chose to shoot on analogue film which brought another new dimension to our storytelling. The results were a beautiful collection of images that captured a sense of place and time and hopefully compliments the narrative of our short film.


photographer takes photos of children in malawi


Of course, none of this would have been possible were it not for the wider team that helped to deliver this vision. Miriam from Habitat for Humanity was vital in enabling this project to exist, as of course were the amazing people of Mwalija.

Throughout the week of filming our team were sharing the content with the community. We will also share the final film with them with Miriam’s help. She will be hosting a formal screening of the film in the village, seeking feedback and continuing our process to better convey ShelterBox’s role in the process of recovery and share family stories in their own words.


women sitting talking in malawi


We could not have asked for a more welcoming and inviting community in which to spend time.

*We would go on to discover through the process of the project that while we came from different backgrounds our differences were not that large after all.


Self-recovery requires a vision of the future; an identified recovery pathway. In the aftermath of a disaster, families will often be focussed on meeting their critical needs and distracted by the trauma of events that have happened.

A shift in focus away from ‘the now’ and towards ‘the tomorrow’ is critical to establishing early recovery processes. We found the responses to the different themes suggested that this community now had such a vision for the future.


young woman washing dishes in malawi


The space and place of home – We found that this meant so much more than just a physical structure, that the notion of Home has emotional connotations too.

Home provides a family space which allows for the resumption of normal behaviours and supports psychological recovery. Ownership of land, a space to call one’s own, enabled families to start imaging a future. This was evidenced by the way that people talked to us about their intentions for the garden and how they would rebuild a permanent house.


people sitting in dappled sunlight malawi


Community – Shelter keeps communities together.

Families that were considering relocating immediately after the storm were provided with an incentive when they were provided with a place to go and the means to move there. As well as providing physical and emotional support, cohesive communities allow for the exchange of goods and services, activities which enable people to access the resources so vital to early recovery.


bucket and brick mould in malawi


Access to livelihoods – The provision of shelter materials enabled people to resettle on higher ground.

With their critical shelter needs satisfied, they were able to turn their attention to clearing farmland of flood debris and replanting crops. Tools, provided by ShelterBox, offered practical support. The timely resumption of livelihood activities helps support the provision of money and food. For a community orientated around agricultural production, this also supports independence and agency.


people-smiling standing outside shelter in malawi


Skills and knowledge – Building a safe and durable shelter needs skills and knowledge.

This is vital if structures are going to last while affected families continue building up the money and resources needed to repair or rebuild a permanent house. For some people, this will be second nature as they draw from previously held experiences. Other families may need help and guidance to build their new shelter. More vulnerable households may need practical assistance to build a safe structure. The provision of training to teams of local volunteers can benefit the community as a whole.

What is self-recovery?

The notion that families will repair or rebuild their homes following a disaster is now widely accepted to be the norm rather than the exception. This is referred to as self-recovery.

However, the process of self-recovery can be inhibited by factors including access to material, financial or human resources, physical or mental disability and political or social marginalisation. Sometimes the scale of a significant disaster, like Cyclone Idai, will impact on the ability of affected families to start recovering. When communities are unable to self-recover in a timely fashion, they are more vulnerable to additional threats and hazards which can lead to poor health and wellbeing.

ShelterBox aims to support self-recovery by helping to remove some of the barriers that may exist.

Although ShelterBox provides material aid, it is not the provision of the item that lifts the barrier, but rather what the recipient is able to achieve with it. A hammer does not build a home so to speak. But a hammer in the hands of someone with the knowledge, desire and motivation to build a home will.

As such, ShelterBox cannot claim responsibility for the recovery of communities. That credit can only be given to the families and individuals within the affected communities. But we can claim that, if done appropriately, affected communities will have a greater capacity for self-recovery as a result of our decision to engage in a context. It is this contribution to the recovery process that this project aims to communicate. We would be fascinated to know whether we achieved this?

So, what next?

The Kunyumba film, and supporting photographic series, will be launched across our ShelterBox website and social channels in early September and we will be using the assets as a tool to communicate our impact to our supporters around the world.

We’re keen to understand the response to the project and whether this style of storytelling is interesting or helpful (as one part of our varied communications approach) to better understanding how we operate and the true impact of a supporter’s donation.

We’re interested too in the thoughts of our peers in similar roles (be that Monitoring, evaluation and learning or Brand and content development).


Thank you to Stephano and Mary and the amazing community of Mwalija, Malcolm Shead, Sam Allen, Chloe Lyme, Miriam Nwazimva, Tom Carpenter, Benn Berkley, Sian Davey, the team at Habitat for Humanity and everyone who helped made this project possible.


Find out more about Cyclone Idai and how ShelterBox responded here: Recovering after Cyclone Idai

View ‘Kunyumba – home’