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Onwu: Why 'death' in igbo names

Published: at 12:00 AM

“Onwu” expressed as “Ọnwụ” in the Igbo orthography and pronounced /Aw-nwu/ means death in the Igbo language. Typically, Ọnwụ as a name could be a shortened form of any of the Onwu inspired names. Onwu names commonly appear as surnames suggesting an older origin of the names.

Cultural Background

Culturally, the Igbo society is patrilineal and as a group are obsessed with family size and filial succession- It is important that there is always someone to carry on the family name. It is easy to understand the consequent obsession with anything that hinders the achievement of the standard.

In general, the lgbos had no adequate mechanisms for arresting or explaining infant mortality, accidental deaths, deaths from unknown diseases, and so on [Uzukwu]. Even though the Igbos mourn their dead with grief and extend sympathy, as do other people, they are well aware that death is not an end but a transition [Edeh].

Onwu Group of Names

Onwu group names point to the helplessness in the face of what were unexplained deaths- deaths from diseases or from needless wars as families and communities faced obliteration. Examples of these names are listed below.

Onwudebe, Onwuseraka, Onwukwalu, Onwualor, Onwujioke, Onwujiaku, Onwuazor, Onwuama (Onwuamaeze), Onwudinjor, Onwudiwe, Onwuaraghi, Onwuasoanya (Onwuasor), Onwuliri, Onwuliora, Onwukwe, Onwubiko, Onwumbiko, Onwuzurume, Onwuchekwa, Onwuemerie, Onyekaonwu, Ikemerionwu, Onwukaeme (Onwuka), Belonwu, Onwuegbune, Egwuonwu, Onwumelu, Onwuezurike, Ikeagwuonwu, Onwuegbuzia, Onyenyilionwu

Some of these Onwu inspired names points clearly to a deification of death as in the names; “OnyekaONWU” which seem to have been replaced by a more “positive” variant “OnyekaCHI”. This seeming deification is also found in the names “ONWUjioke” which now appears less than its more “positive” variant “CHIjioke”; there is also “Onwuchekwa” and “Onwuzurume”.

Which ‘Onwu’ names have we missed? Help improve our database by using the contribute section on