By BETH HALE
PUBLISHED: 17:22 EST, 17 August 2012 | UPDATED: 17:23 EST, 17 August 2012
- Scorned ex-husband threw 50 handbags and more than 50 pairs of shoes onto bonfire
- Michelle Dampha is now married to Gambian gardener she met on holiday with ex-husband
For a woman who owns little more than the clothes she stands up in, Michelle Dampha seems remarkably sanguine.
Michelle’s possessions — her clothes, her collection of costly designer handbags, her jewellery and even treasured photos of her children — have all been destroyed in a fire. But not just any old fire. The blaze was started by her ex-husband Darrell Plews, who made a vast bonfire of her belongings after she left him for another man.
Michelle, 34, may have lost almost everything material, but what she has gained, she believes, is infinitely more valuable.
New love: Michelle Plews on her wedding day to Gambian gardener Lamin Dampha last month
For the mother-of-six from Wakefield, West Yorkshire, claims to have found true love in the form of impoverished Gambian gardener Lamin Dampha, 25, whom she met just seven months ago while on holiday with her former husband in Africa.
So convinced is Michelle that her love for Dampha is genuinely reciprocated, that she has married him in Gambia. Quite when they tied the knot remains an issue of contention. Plews believes Michelle was not yet divorced from him when she made her vows to Lamin. Michelle insists otherwise.
Whatever the truth of the matter, Darrell Plews was estranged from Michelle and intent on revenge when he let himself into the semi-detached home they once shared — while she sunbathed, oblivious, on a Gambian beach — and piled all her possessions into a giant pyre in the garden.
Onto it he threw 50 handbags and more than 50 pairs of shoes by designers including Gucci, Jimmy Choo and Vivienne Westwood.
Then he doused it in petrol, lit a match and watched it blaze for the next five hours. When Michelle arrived home four days later, it was as if every scrap of evidence that she had ever lived there had been erased.
‘Every single thing down to my last pair of knickers, my last earring, photos of the kids, college work, things that were irreplaceable, was gone. It was as if I never existed,’ she says. ‘All I had left was what was in the suitcase I’d taken with me,’ she adds.
She breaks into a smile as she looks at her £700 Gucci handbag. ‘I had this with me, too, and it’s the only bag I’ve got left.’
A pink Jimmy Choo purse, a Tiffany bangle and necklace, a Gucci bracelet and some rings also escaped, because Michelle was wearing them at the time. One thing she does have, however, is a man who, she claims, is everything her ex-husband is not.
Angry: Michelle’s first husband Darrell Plews was so upset that his wife was having an affair her burned all her possessions
‘I’ve always wanted to be with a man like Lamin, but I never thought he existed,’ she says. ‘Daz took my self-confidence away and Lamin has slowly given me that back. He tells me I’m beautiful and that he loves me every day.’
While Michelle may be basking in her new relationship, the extent of her former husband’s retribution was revealed last week when Plews, 44, a shop-fitter, was given a 12-month suspended prison sentence and ordered to pay Michelle £5,000 in compensation, after admitting arson and theft.
Plews was a man scorned: he claimed his actions were triggered by the revelation that Michelle had married Lamin while she was still his wife.
Today, Michelle, a pretty blonde, admits that she is indeed now married to Lamin Dampha — who remains 3,000 miles away and has no immediate plans to join his new bride in England (they must meet stringent visa requirements for that to happen) — but insists the wedding took place after she had divorced Plews.
She is keen to produce the evidence: ‘Look, here’s the divorce certificate and here’s the marriage certificate,’ she says, pulling two slips of paper from an envelope. ‘The divorce was on July 6. I went back to Gambia on July 10 and we married legally on July 17.’
Regardless of the chronology, there is no disputing the discontent that propelled Michelle from a suburban home in northern England into an impulsive marriage with a virtual stranger on the other side of the world.
It is somewhat ironic that the holiday on which Michelle met her new husband was intended to heal the rift in her turbulent marriage to Darrell. They decided to go abroad together in December 2011, when relations between them had reached a low ebb. The tale that she relates is of a troubled marriage, punctuated by rows. She was a 27-year-old mother-of-four when she met Plews in 2005. He clearly had his attractions, although Michelle now struggles to name them.
Within two years they had a son and set up their own shop-fitting business. Michelle ran the office while Plews carried out the installations, and the company flourished.
They married in 2008, but by the time their second son arrived in 2009 things were rapidly deteriorating. Michelle blames her husband’s drinking.
He, in turn, has cast her as a spendthrift and bigamist.
She claims that her shopping — done furtively and extravagantly on the internet — was to compensate for the lack of fulfilment in her marriage.
It was this that Michelle hoped to rectify when she planned a New Year holiday to Gambia, which she chose after spotting an advert for a bargain £1,000 break for four on the internet.
‘I was excited,’ she says. ‘It was Africa. You hear all these exotic things. I thought I was going to see elephants, that it was going to be red hot, a mysterious country that I’d read about but never seen.
‘My four older children stayed with my mum and we flew from Manchester airport on New Year’s Eve with our youngest two. When we arrived in the resort by coach it was midnight and all the celebrations were going on.’
The family stayed in a hotel in Kotu, a resort popular with holidaying Britons.
Burned: Mr Plews threw 50 handbags and more than 50 pairs of shoes by designers including Gucci, Jimmy Choo and Vivienne Westwood which belonged to his ex-wifeon to a fire (file pic of Jimmy Choo shoes)
It was, Michelle recalls, her husband who first got chatting in the grounds to the Gambian gardener.
Indeed, the two men got on so well that Plews employed Lamin, who speaks fluent English and is a joiner by trade, to act as a tour guide for the family.
It was on a trip to a traditional market that Michelle found herself alone with Lamin for the first time. Even after this scant acquaintance, she professes to have felt an instant attraction.
‘Daz asked Lamin to take me to the market to get presents to take back for the kids,’ she says. ‘It was the first time we’d been alone together and everything was normal.
‘But then I started getting feelings inside, in my heart. He was very good-looking. He was just perfect and I thought the girl who gets him is going to be very lucky.
‘There were lots of people around and it was a bit intimidating. He grabbed my hand to guide me. I was so glad I had him to help me.’
O n the flimsy basis of this one outing, Michelle was swept off her feet.
She says she felt her ‘heart could burst’ when she said goodbye to Lamin two days later, although she insists there was no shared intimacy between them. Indeed, she claims: ‘I knew it was a hopeless dream.’
As it turned out, it was not so hopeless. Just two weeks after the couple returned to the UK, Plews suggested his wife return to Gambia with three of her children who had not been the first time.
On her return, Michelle renewed her acquaintance with Lamin. ‘I stayed in the same hotel, in the same room, and it brought back all the memories of before,’ she says.
‘When I saw Lamin again, it was like I’d not seen him for a year. We cuddled each other. I was so happy to be in his arms.’
She insists, however, that she was not unfaithful to Plews.
‘I’m not a cheat,’ she says, although she admits that she and Lamin did kiss and agree to be ‘boyfriend and girlfriend’ by the end of her second visit. The small matter of her marriage to Plews, it seems, was to be dealt with on her return home.
Meanwhile, her children apparently forged an instant rapport with their mother’s new ‘boyfriend’.
‘I introduced Lamin to the kids and they all got on really well,’ she says. ‘He’s young at heart, he played with them in the pool, took us out places, then every night while the kids were in bed we sat up talking.
‘I talked to Lamin about my relationship and he gave me courage and explained how much better life could be. We decided that I couldn’t go back to how things were, that I was going to tell Daz I was leaving.’
Within two days of returning home in late January, Michelle had ended her marriage to Darrell.
High price: A Tiffany bangle and necklace, escaped the fire, because Michelle was wearing them at the time (file pic of Tiffany necklace)
‘Daz knew something was wrong,’ she says. ‘He started accusing me of cheating on him with another tourist. He was digging and niggling at my brain, putting me down and that was it, I just told him to get out.
‘I didn’t care about the business. All I cared about was how happy I had seen my kids and that, for the first time in years, I was happy.’
Since then, she has made three more trips to Gambia, eating through her meagre savings of about £3,000.
There is still, however, the rather confusing matter of the wedding. If she only married Lamin a month ago, how does she account for the fact that her ex-husband told the court that she married her lover in January? He even claimed he had seen photographs of the occasion.
It was all a big misunderstanding, she insists, fuelled by her mother — the two have now fallen out — who never liked Plews and wanted to make him suffer.
‘I was invited to a family celebration by Lamin’s mother and I asked his sister if I could borrow some African clothes to wear. That’s this so-called wedding,’ she says.
Plews viewed things differently, and when Michelle returned from her third trip to Gambia in March, she found the charred remains of her belongings in her back garden.
In the months since his marriage ended, Plews has been the subject of a restraining order, which he has breached. Michelle worries constantly about what to expect next. But she’s determined to be positive.
‘I don’t have anything but the kids and Lamin,’ she says. ‘And I don’t care about anything else. Everything has gone. But it doesn’t matter any more.’
Today, among the silver rings on her hand is a simple metallic band that certainly isn’t made of precious metal — Lamin’s gift to her. She also wears a silver bangle engraved with the words Mr and Mrs Dampha, to mark their wedding.
‘We had a Muslim ceremony on July 15 at his parents’ house,’ she says. ‘I wore a dress over trousers because I wanted to keep my legs covered out of respect for Lamin’s religion.
‘The bangles were Lamin’s idea, so we went to the shop and he paid for two bracelets and we watched as they were engraved. His dad put them on for us during the ceremony and said a little blessing.
‘The head of the mosque conducted the ceremony in Arabic. His dad and sister translated.’
Romantic: Kotu in Gambia where Michelle met her new man gardener Lamin Dampha while on a holiday with her husband
T wo days later, the couple married in an English ceremony, in the sweltering heat of the Ministry of Justice building in Gambia. The bride wore an ivory gown and the groom a grey suit. Both sported pink roses and after signing the marriage register they walked barefoot onto the beach.
Since then, Michelle’s marriage has been a long-distance one, conducted via the internet. ‘I speak to Lamin every single day, five times a day. We text all the time,’ she says. ‘We’ve been together seven months and we’ve not had one hiccup, one dispute. This is what normality is.
‘I’ve got a husband who loves me, I love him, the kids love him, we talk to each other every day, we see each other (via Skype) every day. Who could ask for more?’
It may seem bizarre that she considers this virtual marriage satisfactory. Moreover, many will consider her naive: has she not considered the possibility that her husband married her to get residency in the UK?
She dismisses the idea.
‘We will apply for a visa for him to come here when the time is right,’ she says, adding: ‘If he was just using me to be in the UK why would he take on somebody with six children and not a dime to her name?
‘If he was a gold digger, why didn’t he choose an older woman, someone with money?
‘He tells me: “I’m not bothered about being in England, we can live anywhere, I just want to be with you.” That’s how I know he’s genuine.’
‘There are so many couples out there like us; so many men who are constantly being slated for being after a UK passport. But Lamin’s got to be here for seven years to get one.
‘If that’s what he’s using me for, at least I get seven years of happiness with him.’
We can only hope, once the dust has settled on the charred remnants of Michelle’s life, that her optimism and faith in Lamin are rewarded.