OkaZHI: Okanagan-Zambia Health Initiative

Our Beginnings


Meet the Founder 

Dr. Bill Nelems          Bill (1)


Bill was born in Springs, South Africa on April 26th, 1939.  His parents were Canadian, his father a mine manger.  The first 17 years of his life were spent in the various mine towns of South Africa and what was then Northern Rhodesia (Zambia since independence). With increasing unrest in Africa, the Nelems’ family returned to Canada where Bill enrolled at the University of Toronto, intending to follow his father’s footsteps as a mining engineer.  However, the fun his sister Bev was having with medical studies sparked the passion for medicine in Bill which remains to this day. As a world class Thoracic Surgeon (he performed the first lung transplant in Canada) Dr. Nelems has enjoyed a fabulous career, and has earned the respect of his patients, colleagues and co-workers.  He has been recognized many times for his contributions to Canadian healthcare, most recently receiving the 2009 Award of Excellence in Medical Achievement by the B.C. College of Physicians and Surgeons. In addition to achieving excellence in the medical field, he has also achieved excellence in the family world, being a very proud father to 4 daughters and now enjoying 5 grandchildren.  Bill and his wife Mary Ellen live in Kelowna, British Columbia. Always cognizant of his good fortune and the opportunities available to him, Dr. Nelems knew that one day he would return to the land of his childhood to use his expertise and help facilitate healthcare in the developing country.   In 2006, travelling with his daughter Rebeccah, when a trip to Zambia resulted in renewing connections with U of T classmate Dr. Chifumbe Chintu, an icon in Paediatrics in Africa. Reconnecting with Dr. Chintu led to meeting Dr. Margaret Maimbolwa, then the Assistant Dean of the Faculty on Medicine at the University of Zambia [UNZA]. Dr. Maimbolwa  recommended that if we were to form a non-profit organization that we should concentrate our efforts in Western Province, an area with poor health outcomes. In 2008 an opportunity arose when two recent UBCO nursing graduates volunteered to spend six months in Zambia. In preparation for their departure, Bill  made a solo scouting trip to Mongu, the capital community of Western Province, and held an initial meeting with Dr. Andrew Silumesii, then the CEO of the Lewanika General Hospital. The nursing school director reported to him. Bill found Sr. Kathy of the Presentation sisters, who was also the director of the Mongu Cheshire Homes. Sr. Kathy identified a major need for health care infrastructure rebuilding and committed herself to housing our nurses. She promises that if we would return, that she would build an accommodation centre. Accompanying  Bill to Zambia in 2008 were Drs. Linda Hawker, Gary O’Connor and Kim Lefevre. The ground was now prepared for Lianne Jones and Jessica Barker to proceed to Mongu. They taught at the ZEN School of Nursing and they worked as nurses at the hospital for 6 months. Joining them during that time was Cameron O’Connor, then a recent Science graduate from the University of Alberta. Unused and lying in a musty back room lay 20 discarded computers sent 10 years earlier by some well-meaning group in the US. Cameron took it upon himself to bring many of them back into working order. This was the beginning of electronic access to learning materials in Mongu. In late 2008, to evaluate and support Lianne and Jessica’s work, Bill, Gary and Fay Karp, a professor from the UBCO School of Nursing, returned to Mongu. Thus began our strong linkages to Western Province.  In May 2009, Linda and Gary returned to Mongu with Dr. Tim Murphy to do an assessment as to how teams might be integrated. Also in 2010, Fay Karp began the first of what has now become an annual UBCO student nursing elective to Mongu, where students learn and teach for 8 weeks each year. Numerous teachings followed and the details can be seen under our Programs section. 


Bill has retired from his Thoracic Surgery practice. He works part time at the Okanagan Interventional Pain Clinic and has just completed writing the “Evolution of Thoracic Surgery in Canada” with Griff Pearson and Jean Deslauriers as co-authors.

Our Zambian Colleagues

OkaZHI is a collaborative venture.  Without the commitment and support of our Zambian colleagues, the organization would not have been launched.  The individuals profiled below have been instrumental in the formation of OkaZHI and its success to date.

Dr. Andrew Silumesii AndrewSilumesii

Dr. Andrew Silumesii had wanted to be a doctor since the age of 10. He first obtained a Bachelor of Science Degree with a major in Microbiology before entering into the medical program at UNZA’s University Teaching Hospital. His internship was done at Kitwe Central Hospital in Copperbelt Province prior to being transferred to Mongu to work at Lewanika General Hospital. He was appointed to the position of Executive Director of the 273 bed hospital. In 2012 he obtained his Masters Degree in Health Administration at the Institute of Tropical Medicine in Belgium. His thesis was titled, “Building Leadership Capacity to Improve Work Climate in a Zambian hospital: An Action Research Proposal.” His interests are to gain an understanding of the complex links between health and development in Zambia. In 2013 he was appointed as the Chief Medical Officer for Western Province. His interests in leadership and capacity building continue. He has been a constant supporter of OkaZHI.

Dr. Margaret Mainbolwa MargaretMaimbolwa

Dr. Margaret Maimbolwa is the only PhD nurse in Zambia. She received her PhD from Karolinska Institute in Sweden. She has taken part in many research projects within Zambia in relation to maternal health, Zambia. In 2008 when we first met her, she was the Assistant Dean of the Faculty on Medicine at UNZA, constantly providing support for us as our organization emerged. Over the years she took on the role of supporting foreign non-profits and universities that came to Zambia to build partnerships. In 2013 she became the CEO of ZAMFOHR.

Professor Chifumbe Chintu biopic_chintu

The main reason that our work is in Zambia at all stems from a friendship between Prof. Chifumbe Chintu and Bill Nelems that began as medical school classmates from their University of Toronto days together. He studied Paediatrics at the Sick Children’s Hospital in Toronto. When he returned to Zambia in 1964, the University Teaching Hospital had been opened for 1 year. Being the only certified paediatrician in the country, he was immediately appointed as “Professor of Paediatrics” at UNZA. He is known affectionately as the father of Zambian Paediatrics, honoured by the WHO for his contributions to health care in Africa, Chair of the Pan-African Health Ethics Committee, beloved by students, colleagues and patients (the list goes on). Having collaborated with numerous international investigators, he has published extensively on every aspect of tropical Paediatric health. He is highly sought after as an international speaker. Prof. Chintu acts as our advisor, our moral compass, our source of inspiration.

Others there at the Beginning

Rebeccah Nelems biopic_rebecca_nelems

An international development consultant, now a PhD candidate at the University of Victoria, Rebeccah specializes in the evaluation of international aid projects, programs and organizations. She has worked with a wide range of national and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs), government, research and multilateral agencies. Rebeccah has been fortunate to work in over 17 countries representing all world regions. OkaZHI is a passion for her because it is truly making a difference in people’s lives while adhering to all of the best practices within international development. Built in the spirit of true North-South partnership, OkaZHI’s end goal is to work itself out of a ‘job’ by supporting Zambian individuals and institutions to build the capacity they need on the ground to address their most basic and pressing healthcare needs. OkaZHI is also a passion for Rebeccah because it has given her the opportunity to work directly on a shared area of interest with her father! Rebeccah lives in Victoria with her husband, Cory, and her two sons, Willem and Everest.

Her PhD academic focus is now centred at the Faculty of Sociology in Victoria and interests include the phenomenology of Empathy.

Dr. Gary O’Connor Biopic Gary

Gary O’Connor was born in Edmonton, Alberta and attended the University of Alberta, completing his Medical Degree in 1978. This was followed by a Family Practice residency and then a year of travelling. During the time spent in Asia he was inspired to consider contributing in the future to the well-being of others. He completed his Orthopaedic Residency at Queen’s University in Kingston 1986, which was then followed with 2 years of sub specialty training at the University of Toronto. Over the next few years Gary’s family grew to include three children, and an Orthopaedic Surgery practice at Credit Valley Hospital, Mississauga. He moved to Kelowna in 1990 and has been on staff at the Kelowna General Hospital since that time. Gary holds a position at UBC as Clinical Assistant Professor in the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery and is active teaching at the Undergraduate and Postgraduate level. Gary has had an interest in pursuing surgical and medical education in third world countries since travelling in 1980-81. An opportunity arose with Dr. Bill Nelems in 2008 to help develop the Okanagan Zambia Health Initiative- starting as a founding member on the first site visit to Zambia to develop contacts and shape the goals of OkaZHI.  He has been an enthusiastic and active participant in the evolution of OkaZHI and development of its surgical teaching programs ever since. To facilitate teaching, Gary holds Instructor status through the Canadian Network for International Surgery for the Essential Surgical Skills, Structured Hernia Repair and Trauma Team Training Courses.

Dr. Linda Hawker, MD, CCFP biopic_linda_hawker

Linda has recently retired as a Family doctor. She has had a keen interest in health education and global health. After getting her M.D from the University of Alberta in 1977, she and her husband Dr. Gary O’Connor travelled throughout Asia and gained an appreciation for the challenges facing developing countries. Gary and Linda raised three children in Ontario and B.C and currently live in Kelowna B.C.  OkaZHI has provided Linda the opportunity to work with a  collaborative group of dedicated OkaZHI doctors, nurses and community members to deliver education to Zambian health professionals in a way that is responsive to local needs and builds capacity for the long term.  She believes that as the Zambians learn, they teach others and the effect is magnified, like ripples in a pond, and as OkaZHI members teach, they learn about solving challenges to delivering health care where resources are limited. Linda is a founding member, past Chair of the Board (2010-1012), and current Chair of the Medical Committee and Governance Committee. She is a clinical instructor in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, Okanagan campus. Linda is a Past President of OkaZHI and the current Head of the OkaZHI Medical team. She and her colleagues are currently developing Skype educational sessions with the Clinical Officers in Mongu. Some of the topics can be seen in our educational section.

Dr. Kim Lefevre biopic_kim_lefevre

Kim was born in Saskatoon and graduated from the University of Saskatchewan with a medical degree in 1985. Following his internship he spent a year travelling the world with wife Lilianna. Wandering through the towns and villages in India, Asia and the Middle East provided a different kind of education. They returned to Saskatoon where Kim completed a surgical residency in Neurosurgery, followed by a fellowship program in Detroit. The Lefevre’s’ moved to Kelowna in 1993 where Kim entered a very busy Neurosurgical practice and Lilianna entered a very busy “family practice” which now numbers 4 children A love of travel and a true appreciation of how fortunate we are has meant that Lefevre family vacations involve social & cultural education. Kim’s involvement with OkaZHI, sharing his medical expertise with African colleagues comes from a desire to “give back”.

Fay Karp BiopicFay Karp

A nurse for 45 years, Fay’s main areas of interest and passion have been pediatrics, community nursing and teaching nursing. She retired from her teaching career at OUC and UBCO in 2013, but for the last fifteen years, and still on-goingly in retirement, Fay mentors fourth year nursing students as they experience international practice placements in Ghana and Zambia for 6-8 weeks elective rotations. For 10 years she took students to Ghana, but in 2010 she moved her focus to Mongu in Western Province Zambia. She and her other professional colleagues collaborate on meeting the challenges of nursing in areas where resources can be scarce. She finds it rewarding to watch her nursing students begin to understand these challenges and how they ca be part of the solution, forging relationships with their African colleagues.

She joined OKAZHI at the vision stage. We joined Zambian Health care colleagues who were striving to improve health care in their area of Mongu and District at Lewinski General Hospital. Says Fay, “This organization supports the tenants of community development that I taught and which I believe is the only way to support and facilitate sustainable change anywhere. We believe that our Zambian colleagues must direct us as to how we can support them as they work to improve health care in their region.  After all, it is our Zambian colleagues that will make and sustain improvements to their health care in Mongu district.  Our job is to support them with teaching, tell their stories and ask our friends and colleagues in Canada to help us support them. I have seen health care improvements begin to make a difference in Mongu and I know that together we can reach our dreams of sustainable, supported and best practiced based health care become a reality in Mongu.”

Cameron O’Connor winter 2013, early 2014 165

Cam is a graduate in Biochemistry from the University of Alberta, Canada (2008) and has an M.D. from the University of Sydney, Australia (2013). It was from May to November 2008 that he spent  time in Mongu, Zambia with two OkaZHI nurses, teaching sciences at the local nursing school, as well as repairing, updating and networking their computer library.  By downloading textbooks and other learning reference materials he provided a much needed learning tool for the students and staff. He currently is doing a Family Practice residency at the University of Ottawa and maintains an active interest in global health and teaching.


Jessica Barker, RN, BSN biopic_jessica_barker

A former Vice- President of OkaZHI and a member of numerous committees, Jessica has maintained an active  interest in OkaZHI since its inception. She is a Registered Nurse, graduating from the University of British Columbia-Okanagan in 2007. She traveled to Ghana as a nursing student and fell in love with Africa. She has spent the last couple of years working in Zambia, beginning with teaching for six months at Lewanika School of Nursing in Mongu, Western Province. This time introduced her to the wonderful Lozi people and culture of Western Province, and gave her a true appreciation for the beauty of the country. She was confronted with the huge disease burden and human resource crisis that faces Zambian health care workers each and every day. “By empowering our Zambian colleagues through education, OkaZHI can enhance Zambian health care in a sustainable way”.

Jessica will complete her Master’s Degree in Public Health from the University of Cape Town in 2014, and return to teach at UBCO School of Nursing. She has frequently been part of the UBCO Faculty for the student electives to Mongu.

Lianne Jones RN, BSN biopic_lianne_jones

Graduating from UBCO in 2007, Lianne began what promises to be an outstanding career in global health nursing. She spent 6 months living in Mongu, Zambia teaching at the school of nursing. Since that time she has returned to Zambia several times to continue working to develop health care capacity in the Western province. Truly passionate and with a love for her Zambian friends, Lianne works tirelessly to develop and deliver OkaZHI programs. Lianne has experience in nursing in Inuvik in the North West Territories and Whitehorse in the Yukon. She currently lives in Whitehorse with her partner Rob and has recently given birth to her first born son, Benson.

Joan L. Bottorff, RN, PhD, FCAHS biopic_joan_bottorff

Joan Bottorff is a Professor in the School of Nursing and Director of the Institute of Healthy Living and Chronic Disease Prevention at the University of British Columbia (Okanagan campus). Her interests are in health promotion and cancer prevention. She serves on the OkaZHI Board as the Secretary, and is a member of the Finance Committee and Nursing Committee. As a founding member of OkaZHI, Joan became involved because of her interest in supporting opportunities for nursing students to contribute to improvements in health in Zambia, and to support the development and use of health research to inform health care initiatives.

Cameron Jones, BA, MSc. Cam ID

“Since 2009, Cameron has travelled to Zambia three times to support the monitoring and evaluation (M&E) of OkaZHI’s work. He focused his graduate thesis on sustainable development and has worked in a number of evaluation capacities for both humanitarian and environmental groups. A strong advocate of OkaZHI’s work, Cameron continues to assist their M&E committee, participate in fundraising activities and work on evaluation reports as much as time allows for. While not traveling, Cameron resides in Edmonton, Alberta, where he works as a sustainable electricity analyst for the Ministry of Energy.”

Trips that followed