BACKGROUND: Malaria is a serious illness among children aged 5 years and below in Zambia, which carries with it many adverse effects including anemia and high parasites exposure that lead to infant and childhood mortality. Due to poor accessibility to modern health facilities, malaria is normally managed at home using indigenous and cosmopolitan medicines. In view of problems and implications associated with management of severe malaria at home, rectal artesunate is being proposed as a first aid drug to slow down multiplication of parasites in children before accessing appropriate treatment. METHODS: A qualitative study using standardised in-depth and Focus Group Discussions (FGDs) guides to collect information from four (4) villages in Nakonde district, was conducted between February and March 2004. The guides were administered on 29 key informants living in the community and those whose children were admitted in the health facility. Participants in the 12 FGDs came from the 4 participating villages. Participants and key informants were fathers, younger and older mothers including grandmothers and other influential people at household level. Others were traditional healers, headmen, village secretaries, traditional birth attendants, church leaders and blacksmiths. FGDs and interview transcriptions were coded to identify common themes that were related to recognition, classification and naming of malaria illness, care-seeking behaviour and community treatment practices for severe malaria. RESULTS: Parental prior knowledge of the disease was important as the majority of informants (23 out of 29) and participants (69 out of 97) mentioned four combined symptoms that were used to recognise severe malaria. The symptoms were excessive body hotness, convulsions, vomiting yellow things and bulging of the fontanelle. On the other hand, all informants mentioned two or more of symptoms associated with severe malaria. In all 12 FGDs, participants reported that treatment of severe malaria commenced with the family and moved into the community as the illness progressed. Although treatment of severe diarrheal effects, were common among the Winamwanga, no rectal medicines to treat severe malaria were identified. Apart from the anti-malarial fansidar, which was mentioned by 23 in IDIs and 40 in FGDs, participants and informants also frequently mentioned indigenous medicines provided by healers and other respectable herbalists for repelling evil spirits, once a child had severe malaria. Mothers were the important arms for administration of ant-malarial drugs in the villages. Referrals began with healers to CHWs, where no CHWs existed healers directly referred sick children to the health facility. CONCLUSION: Our findings showed that there is a precedent for rectal application of traditional medicine for childhood illness. Therefore rectal artesunate may be a well-received intervention in Nakonde District, provided effective sensitisation, to mothers and CHWs is given which will strengthen the health care delivery system at community level.