A mum-of-nine who dumped her husband for a Gambian toyboy she met online has converted to Islam so they can marry.
Heidi Hepworth, 45, wears a hijab and prays to Allah every day as she prepares for her big day.
She is planning a wedding in a mosque in The Gambia, where most of the population is Muslim and which Heidi says is “a happier and more caring place than Britain”.
Insisting her relationship with Mamadou Salieu Jallow, 31, is the real thing, she said: “No-one imagined this would last but we love each other and are making plans to marry. I’ve never been happier.”
Heidi split with her car mechanic husband of 23 years last year when she hooked up with her lover on Facebook.
Friends reckoned it would hit the rocks within weeks.
At the time, husband Andy, 45, from Hetton-le-Hole, Tyne and Wear, said: “It’s a mid-life crisis. She’s been brainwashed.”
But Heidi, who had never been in a plane in her life, has now been to West Africa four times to see her taxi driver boyfriend.
She plans to move there after they marry next year once her divorce is finalised.
Heidi, who has six children with Andy and three from a previous marriage, said she popped the question.
“I think it’s fine to take the initiative,” she said.
“I have wasted enough time in my life in an unhappy marriage.”
Ex-husband Andy had also criticised Heidi for leaving her kids.
He said: “A caring mum wouldn’t go off gallivanting around Africa with her new boyfriend.”
But speaking exclusively to The Sun last year, she defended her actions, saying: “I don’t have a single regret. I’m not a terrible parent.
“It was really hard for me to leave my kids, but they couldn’t come with me so I had no choice.
“I was shocked at the anger that was directed at me for supposedly abandoning my children. That just didn’t happen.”
Heidi, from West Boldon, South Tyneside, has two sons and a daughter aged 25 to 30 from a previous relationship. She and Andy have three daughters aged seven, ten and 24 and three sons aged 12, 18 and 19.
When she left, the three youngest moved in with her eldest daughter.
Heidi added: “She moved into my home while I was away so that they were disrupted as little as possible.
“I went online every night and we video-chatted. They seemed happy and I know my kids well.
“They also chatted to Salieu and have become very fond of him through talking online over the past few months.
“If people think I went over to The Gambia and didn’t give them a second thought, they are so wrong.
“But having said that, I make no apologies for following my heart. I’ve been unhappy for a long time and I think I have found someone to spend the rest of my life with.
“We are in love and nothing will stop me from marrying him. If other people don’t like that they will just have to lump it.”
Heidi’s African romance made her the talk of town in Hetton-le-Hole in Sunderland.
Andy blames the Facebook love affair for the couple’s split, but Heidi insisted their loveless marriage was over long before she received the friend request from Salieu.
Heidi said: “Andy and I didn’t even share a bedroom, never mind a bed, for the last two years of our marriage.
“We were both unhappy and on some days the most conversation I would get from him would be when he’d say, ‘Put the kettle on’.
“At the end of last year I picked up his phone to look up a number my daughter wanted and saw messages from two women. It was a big shock.
“We drifted even further apart and I was so unhappy. I started volunteering at the children’s school, just so I had some contact with other people and could feel better about myself.”
Heidi appeared on Loose Women in February to defend her relationship with the African business owner.
Viewers took to Twitter to accuse her of being “deluded”.
One said: “Can we have an update of this woman in a few months time when she’s been fleeced of all her money. I’m sorry she’s deluded.”
Heidi however says Salieu is not dating her for financial gain. “He doesn’t want nothing. He has three businesses. He has his own passport, his own visa – why would he ask me for a visa if he’s got one,” she said.
“He comes regularly to England to visit his brother’s son. His brother had a wife here who’s tragically died. And they come regularly.”
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