a picture showing moyo okediji sitting next to his artwork

Woman: Ọmọ Ọlọ́mọ

Woman: Ọmọ Ọlọ́mọ

Iya Oyo had a woven basket full of unshelled melon seeds on one side, and on the other side, she had a bowl into which she dropped the shelled melons, as she worked rapidly, automatically, her fingers moving so rapidly they formed a blur if you pay attention to them.

On the floor in front of her was the waste container, a rough basket into which she dropped the shells of the melon seeds.

I looked inside the bowl on the floor to see if she mistakenly dropped any of the shelled melon seeds in it. I didn’t see any. I moved nearer the bowl, and stirred the content just to make sure.

But there was none. Iya Oyo smiled as I stirred the empty shells.

“What are you looking for?” she asked.

“To see if you dropped some peeled seeds inside the waste container,” I responded.

“She has turned shelling melons into an art,” Baba Oyo said. “She never drops the shelled melon in the wastes basket.”

He sat on his easy chair, with Iwe Iroyin, a Yoruba newspaper. He began to read aloud from the newspaper, as he often did, to inform Iya Oyo who was unable to read or write.

“Listen to this one,” Baba Oyo said. “Woman won two hundred naira lottery in Lagos!”

“Ọmọ ọlọ́mọ́,” said Iya Oyo in response to the story as Baba Oyo read the details of the headline. “It always happens in Lagos,” Iya Oyo remarked, as she continued shelling the melon seeds.

Baba Oyo read a few other stories, as we both listened. Then he turned the back of the newspaper, saying, “How tragic this one: Child fell into a well.”

“How, ọmọ ọlọ́mọ,” said Iya Oyo again. This time she sat up. “Where did that happen?”

“Ado Ekiti,” replied Baba Oyo. “What were they looking? Careless people,” he concluded.

What caught my attention was Iya Oyo’s response to both stories with “Ọmọ ọlọ́mọ.” The stories couldn’t be more different—one tragic, the other fortunate.

“Iya Oyo,” I said, “how is Ọmọ ọlọ́mọ appropriate for two totally opposite situations like that?”

“Do you know the meaning of ọmọ ọlọ́mọ?” Iya Oyo asked.

“Yes,” I answered. “It means a child belonging to another person.”

Baba Oyo laughed heartily at my answer.

Iya Oyo said, “On the surface you are right, but the true meaning goes well beyond that.”

“Please explain, Iya Oyo,” I pleaded.

“Ọmọ means someone who is molded, modeled, as you mold something from clay,” Iya Oyo explained.

“That’s what the Bible says too,” Baba Oyo agreed. “We are all made of clay, and will return to clay.”

“As I was saying,” Iya Oyo continued, “ọmọ comes from mọ, or to mold. The mother molds the child inside her womb, but it is not with clay. She molds the child with a combination of blood, flesh and bone. It is complicated.”

“That makes sense,” I replied.

“But when you say ọmọ ọlọ́mọ, the literal meaning is “The child molded by another woman. The figurative meaning is complex. Depending on the way you intone it, it could be a way to praise someone. But it could also be used to make fun of someone.”

Iya Oyo saw that it was too complicated for me to understand. She continued. “When a person is behaving funny like he was crazy, you could say omo olomo as a statement of pity, or as a way of making jest of the fellow. On the other hand, when someone wins a lottery, like Baba Oyo said, you could also say ọmọ ọlọ́mọ, almost with jealousy, envy or admiration.”

“I still don’t understand,” I confessed.

Baba Oyo said, “It is like ẹni ẹlẹ́ni.”

Iya Oyo resumed shelling her melons, saying, “You are only making things even more complicated for Moyo. One day you will understand the implications of ọmọ ọlọ́mọ and ẹni ẹlẹ́ni. But not today.”

This week, as I completed this painting titled “Woman With Multiple Faces,” with a female figure puffing off on her pipe, the phrase “Ọmọ Ọlọ́mọ” came to my mind. I now know the meaning of that phrase.

I recalled what Iya Oyo said about Ọmọ́ Ọlọ́mọ, and Ẹni Ẹlẹ́ni. The phrase is like a person with multiple faces, just like the painting.

It’s complicated.

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