Grandmother Mary Cotnoir fell in love with Gambian waiter Demba Sanneh nearly 35 years her junior, married him and then later found out he was only interested in her money and gaining a British visa.
Hmm! Where have I heard this before? And more importantly, what is wrong with these old women who think they can just get with a younger African man and live happily ever after? When will they learn?
Anyways, just three weeks before Mary Cotnoir’s wedding day, her 25-year-old husband-to-be, Mr Demba Sanneh from Gambia, was denied a visa to visit her in the UK. The Home Office said her fiancé had failed to give a ‘credible explanation’ for his trip and was deeply suspicious of his true motives.
So, Mary, a 59-year-old grandmother, utterly smitten by her boytoy, got on a plane to Africa and married him anyway. And just eight days into their union, everything fell apart after Mary discovered her husband was only interested in her money and the possibility of gaining a British visa.
Now, Mary, in an act of revenge, announced she is refusing to divorce Mr Sanneh, so he cannot dupe another unsuspecting tourist into marriage — and bringing his dream of starting a new life in the UK to an abrupt halt.
‘I’m just playing Demba at his own game,’ she says. ‘I hope what I’ve done will make other Gambian men, who seduce older British women in the hope of getting a visa, think twice.’
So how did this rather sweet and well-spoken woman end up embroiled in a relationship with an African man the same age as her youngest son in the first place?
Mary, who has five children and four grandchildren, describes herself as a lonely divorcée who threw caution to the wind for the sake of a love affair — the kind she feared she would never experience again.
Having split up from her husband, a police officer, more than 20 years ago, she’d devoted her life to looking after her 82-year-old mother and caring for the patients she visited every day. She’d never, she admits, thought about doing anything solely for herself.
‘Getting involved with Demba was so unlike me,’ she says. ‘Looking back now, I can’t believe I did something so stupid. But I’d been alone for so long, and it seemed so exciting, that I got carried away.
‘When I said to my friends I was going to marry Demba, everyone told me not to. They said, “Why are you marrying him?”, and my response to that was “Why not?”
‘I thought: “I’ve got ten good years left in me and I want to make the most of them.” I wanted to take a few risks, live a little. I’d never wanted to become a sad lonely old woman, but that was where I was headed. ‘Then, this lovely young man landed in my lap.’
Mary insists that when she first went to Gambia, in January of this year, it was not with the intention of finding an exotic toyboy.
‘Since divorcing, I used to holiday with my mum, and we’d have great fun. But for the past few years she’s been unwell, so I’ve gone away on my own on package tours to Turkey, India and then, this year, Gambia.
‘Call me naive, but I had no idea that Gambia has a reputation for these relationships between British women and young black men. ‘But as soon as the plane landed, I realised what was going on. I couldn’t even step outside the hotel without young men zooming in on me. One boy even grabbed my sun lotion from my bag and had his hands all over me trying to persuade me to let him rub it in.’
Mary sought refuge on the private beach belonging to her hotel, and it was there she met Mr Sanneh, a waiter at her hotel. He offered to act as her tour guide and, somewhat ironically, declared he would ‘protect’ her from the locals vying for her attention.
‘The next day, Demba showed me round a local monkey park, and that night we went for a drink,’ says Mary ‘At the end of the evening, he escorted me back to my hotel room and tried to kiss me. I was surprised and told him I wouldn’t open the door to my room until he’d gone.’
Once alone, Mary — who says at that point she’d not had a sexual relationship for more than ten years — found herself contemplating an unlikely liaison.
‘The sensible part of me was saying I’m nearly 60, he’s 25, and that I wouldn’t even know what to do in bed after so long. But the other part of me was saying that I would probably never get another offer like it again, and I’d be stupid not to take it. ‘I thought it would just be a nice holiday romance.’
And it was with the latter rationale that romance blossomed over her remaining five days in Gambia.
‘It was just lovely to be with someone who was so caring, deeply religious — he was Muslim — and who didn’t drink. Two days before I left, we slept together for the first time, and it was so exciting. It had been so long since I’d been intimate with someone.
‘At some point during the week, Demba laid his cards on the table. He said he was offering love, sex and companionship, but in return he wanted my help. He said perhaps I could get him a laptop, then he could go to college and get a better job.
‘I thought: “Well, a laptop is nothing” — and I wanted to help him. He had nothing. He lived with 20 members of his family in a tiny place. His room was like a cupboard.’
By the time she left Gambia, Mary admits she was infatuated. She and Demba stayed in touch via email and text, and Mary returned to visit him for another fortnight in March, taking with her the promised laptop.
They stayed together in a hotel room paid for by Mary, and on the second day Demba proposed. He offered her a ring he’d had made by a local silversmith. Lovestruck, she readily accepted.
‘I know it sounds crazy, but here was this beautiful young man proposing to boring old me — and I loved him. How could I say no?
‘I did know, deep down, that it was possible Demba might not have been in the relationship for the same reasons as me. I understood he earned only £25 a month working as a waiter and wanted to pull himself out of poverty. But if there was a one per cent chance we could work things out, I was prepared to go with it.
‘And other factors reassured me. For instance, Demba constantly dropped into conversation how much he despised people who married British women just to get a visa to go the UK. ‘And Demba made me feel alive again. I was like a young woman in the first flush of love.’
Once back in the UK, Mary agreed to pay for her fiancé to take driving lessons so he could set up a taxi business. They also applied for a tourist visa so he could visit the UK for a holiday.
When this was rejected, undeterred, Mary set about arranging to visit him in September. And their wedding date, which had been loosely scheduled for sometime in 2011, was bought forward to September 23 this year.
‘Demba used his religion as a reason to get married sooner than I’d wanted to,’ she says. ‘He said it was wrong for people to be in love and to be having sex outside of wedlock.’
So last month they were married in a ceremony that cost Mary £500 and was attended by 50 of Mr Sanneh’s friends and relatives.
Fearing her own family’s reaction, she did not tell any of them about the wedding. In fact, she hadn’t even told her four eldest children — two sons aged 39 and 32 and two daughters aged 40 and 37 — that she’d met Demba.
‘The wedding day was the happiest of my life,’ she recalls. ‘I wore a pretty white dress I’d bought for £20 in Turkey, and I’d had a suit made for Demba. Our reception was held in Demba’s family compound, and he was full of compliments about how much beautiful I looked.’
But, says Mary, as soon as the ink was dry on their wedding certificate, the relationship began to unravel.
‘We did sleep together on our wedding night, but the next day I made a joke about how, if the marriage lasted until I died, or until I was too old to want to visit Gambia anymore, I’d buy Demba a property to live in. I said: “You’ll only be 45 then — you can still have another wife and children.”
‘The look on his face was one of horror. It was obvious he’d been hoping for a property far sooner than that. He refused to speak to me for a day, then he started on about what he was going to do when he moved to the UK, and how I’d be putting him up.
‘I was stunned. And hurt. This was the first I’d ever heard about him wanting to come to the UK, and I knew then that I’d been lied to.
‘Up to this point, we’d planned for me to spend six months of each year in Gambia, in a property I would rent. Then I would move out there full-time when my mother passed away. We’d only ever talked about Demba coming to England on holiday.
‘Physically, too, everything changed. He ordered me not to wear strappy tops any more, and to cover myself up in bed with a nightie. I felt incredibly confused and hurt, and spent much of the time in tears.
‘Meanwhile, his entire extended family seemed to be queuing up to chat to me about their plans for their future.
One wanted to go to college, another wanted to set up a business, and they were all intimating that everything would be funded by me. It felt like every one of them saw me as their meal ticket.’
By the time she was due to fly home on October 1, after just eight nights together, Mary knew the relationship was over.
She says: ‘After my visit in March, he’d been the one crying at the airport — but now he could barely bear to kiss me. He gave me a peck on my cheek, and then started on about money.
‘He wanted money for his parents, my travellers cheques, my euros. He even had the cheek to ask for the perfume I’d just bought for myself. I can only think he wanted it for another woman. ‘He got more and more demanding, until eventually I took the cash I had left and slammed it on the table. I was sobbing as I got on the plane.’
In the three weeks since Mary has been home, Mr Sanneh has been in touch, declaring his love and expressing his intention to make the marriage work. But Mary says she will not even consider attempting to reconcile, and that the relationship is well and truly over.
However, she won’t be co-operating with a divorce — which means Demba will have to wait five years until he can ask for their marriage to be dissolved by a court of law, without her co-operation.
She says: ‘I’m not taking revenge on Demba because he was seeking a better life. But he just pushed things too far.
‘People may laugh about what happened to me, but I don’t actually regret anything. In ten years time, when I’m nearly 70, I’ll be all on my own and there won’t be any men like Demba throwing themselves at me.
‘I didn’t choose for this romance to begin — but once it did, I chose to have an adventure.
‘Now, I realise Demba must have looked at me and seen a fool. ‘The truth is I have been foolish — but I’m not a complete mug. And Demba will have to live with the consequences of what he’s done.’
How Mr Sanneh must now wish he’d realised Mary Cotnoir was far steelier than she seemed.