A mother of nine children has left her husband and family to be with an African lover she met on Facebook. Picture: AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File

London - A mother of nine children has left her husband and family to be with an African toyboy she met on Facebook.

Heidi Hepworth, 44, abandoned husband Andy for 30-year-old Mamadou Jallow – flying out to Gambia to meet him, despite never having been abroad before.

Mr Hepworth, also 44, says his wife started changing her behaviour in March – going to the gym, booking sunbeds and getting tattoos. She was also splashing out on make-up, buying dresses and going out more.

Her husband noticed she had befriended strangers from Africa and Asia on Facebook and was spending a lot of time on her phone.

In April he found an email from Mr Jallow on his wife’s computer. She left the marital home in Hetton-le-Hole, Tyne and Wear, in May with her three youngest children, before flying alone to Gambia last week.

Mr Hepworth said: "It’s a mid-life crisis. It’s as if she’s become a completely different person, certainly not the woman I have been with for the last 23 years. It’s like someone else has taken over her body."

He said the ordeal has been difficult for their children – the youngest of whom is six – and he is convinced his wife’s lover has brainwashed her. He said: "A caring mum wouldn’t go off gallivanting around Africa with her new boyfriend. The person she has become is horrible. She was a loving, caring mum."

"I first noticed something might be wrong when she started dressing up and going out. She started trying to look younger."

"She was never really one for doing either of those things, like most mothers her life revolved around her kids. It’s one big fantasy for her and she is following it through step by step."

The couple have six children together and Mr Hepworth has raised the three children she had from a previous marriage as his own.

After she went to Gambian capital Banjul concerns were raised about the three youngest – aged six, nine and 11 – by a neighbour because Mrs Hepworth’s absence was so unusual. However, police later found them staying legally with their 29-year-old sister.

Mr Hepworth, who served in the Royal Navy for four years, added: "She had three children from a previous relationship but I brought them up as mine. We then had six of our own."

"In becoming this new person she forgot about her family and they’re the most important people in all this."

"The youngest kids have obviously been missing her, it’s been hard to explain her absence to them."

"It’s amazing to think that at the start of this year we were a normal happy family, it’s just so sad for the kids."

Mrs Hepworth said from Gambia that she saw her future and that of the children as being with Mr Jallow.

She told The Sun: "I’ve met a young gentleman but it’s not an affair. The marriage had problems. We drifted apart. Can a woman not have a new relationship? The marriage came to a natural end. Now I’m very happy. You couldn’t meet a nicer man."

"The children haven’t been left to fend for themselves. I’m missing them and video chat every day."

"It’s hard, but they understand. I don’t know if I will move here permanently but I see my future with Mamadou, and my children."

She denied Mr Jallow was just trying to get a British passport.

She had been with Mr Hepworth for 18 years when they decided to marry five years ago.

Mr Hepworth added: "We were always rock solid. But I think it’s over. She’s said and done too much."

Nearly half of Gambia’s population of 2 million live in poverty, and the average income is £8 (about R150) per week.