Gam­bian toy boy shock

Linda Sharpe’s daugh­ter found her hap­pi­ness far away from their home in Pevensey, East Sus­sex. And, the 70-year-old ex­plains, she lost her heart there, too...

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After 4 days with Jombo, So­nia’s heart gave out

My dar­ling So­nia,

My mind of­ten goes back to the days when me and you were run­ning our fam­ily cafe in Hast­ings. You were in your 20s by then, and I can al­most hear you call­ing out, ‘Two ba­con butties, one egg roll.’ But most of all, it’s the sound of your laugh­ter that rings in my ears.

I was 21 when I had you, the sec­ond of my four chil­dren. We were birds of a feather, weren’t we? When you started at my old school, the teacher’s face fell, be­cause she re­mem­bered me and, years on, you were just as naughty, bunk­ing off to do more ex­cit­ing things.

We could both be hot-headed, too, stomp­ing out of the cafe in a strop, but 10 min­utes later, we’d be back, ban­ter­ing and gig­gling again. When your hus­band, Martin, came in for a fry-up, we’d joke that he ate half our prof­its – not that it stopped him.

I al­ways ad­mired you for putting on a brave face, be­cause life had al­ready dealt you some ter­ri­ble cards. When your baby daugh­ter, Christy, was di­ag­nosed with car­diomy­opa­thy, a se­ri­ous heart con­di­tion, you dis­cov­ered Martin had it, too. It ex­plained why Christy’s lit­tle brother, Char­lie, only lived 24 hours.

You had been born with a hole in your heart your­self, but doc­tors has al­ways as­sured us it wouldn’t cause prob­lems. And it didn’t seem to. Your other two kids, Chelsea and Damion, were com­pletely healthy.

Christy had a heart trans­plant when she was five, and it was won­der­ful to see the re­lief and pride on your face. But tragedy just seemed to fol­low you.

Her new heart only gave her seven ex­tra years, and I watched your own one break when she died aged 12.

Your mar­riage col­lapsed un­der the strain.

After the di­vorce, you picked up the pieces of your life.

‘You’ve al­ways been a fighter,’ I’d tell you.

And you’d smile and re­ply, ‘Stub­born, you mean.’

Then, when you were 36, you and Martin, 51, got back to­gether.

You started to plan a sec­ond wed­ding and, in the mean­time, booked a hol­i­day to The Gam­bia.

‘I’ve al­ways wanted to know what Africa’s like,’ you told me, ex­cit­edly.

But the shadow was ready to fall again. Martin, a su­per­mar­ket worker who suf­fered from chronic back pain, took an ac­ci­den­tal over­dose of painkillers. You called me from the hospi­tal, your voice shaking as you told me, ‘He’s in a coma, Mum. He may never wake up.’

By the time the hol­i­day came round, there was no change.

Know­ing there was noth­ing you could do for him, and that you des­per­ately needed a break, I urged you to go. You took Damion,

13, with you.

You both came back rav­ing about the place.

‘It’s a par­adise, Mum,’ you bab­bled. ‘The colours are beau­ti­ful and the peo­ple are so warm and wel­com­ing. I can’t wait to go back.’

But poor Martin never re­gained con­scious­ness, and he died the fol­low­ing year.

Like any mum, I felt your pain as if it were my own, and I was anx­ious about your health, too.

You were hav­ing breath­ing dif­fi­cul­ties. Doc­tors di­ag­nosed COPD, a lung dis­ease, as well as prob­lems with your heart, though they didn’t seem to have so­lu­tions.

I hated to see you con­fined to a wheel­chair, wheezy and grey.

‘There must be some­one in the world who can do some­thing to help,’ I fret­ted.

Re­search­ing on­line, we tracked down a spe­cial­ist heart sur­geon in Turkey who said he could help, but it would cost £11,000.

‘We have to find the money,’ I de­clared, and ev­ery­one agreed. Fam­ily and friends raided their sav­ings, me and your step­dad, Keith, sold our car­a­van, and Damion, bless him, handed over his first year’s wages as a farm­hand.

In Turkey, once they had you on the ta­ble, the medics found two holes in your heart. They also found a blood clot, which could have been fa­tal at any time.

You had a re­place­ment valve and pace­maker fit­ted, and bounced back quickly. Back home, you were soon run­ning up and down the stairs like a teenager.

‘I can’t thank you all enough,’ you kept say­ing to us.

You’d been given your life back, and you were de­ter­mined to make the most of it.

That meant The Gam­bia. You re­ally had lost your heart to the coun­try, and you spent ev­ery spare penny on go­ing back there two or three times a year.

‘My breath­ing’s so much bet­ter in the heat,’ you would say.

You’d al­ways stay at The Mansea Beach Ho­tel in Kololi, and the staff there be­came like a sec­ond fam­ily.

Never one to do things by halves, you threw your­self into life out there. You’d

I can’t de­scribe my heartache

get in­vited into peo­ple’s homes and they’d cook a chicken in your hon­our. You’d sit on the ground and drink green tea with your friends, take trips on a fish­ing boat to nearby is­lands… Your sto­ries would make my hair stand on end. ‘My friend took me round the pres­i­dent’s pri­vate zoo,’ you grinned. ‘The croc­o­diles were only a feet away from us.’ ‘I’m glad you only tell me th­ese things when you’re safely home,’ I said.

I loved look­ing at your photos, be­cause you were al­ways at the cen­tre of a crowd of smil­ing faces. ‘You look so happy,’ I told you. ‘I know,’ you’d say, eyes shin­ing. ‘I re­ally love it there, Mum.’

You learnt a lot about the cul­ture, how hard it was for peo­ple in the rainy sea­son when the tourism dried up and there was lit­tle or no work. De­ter­mined to make a dif­fer­ence, you set up The Gam­bian Lun­cheon Club to pro­vide a daily meal for peo­ple in need.

I bloomed with pride, hear­ing how you’d do­nate a sack of rice, help your friend Mariama pre­pare the veg­eta­bles and fish, and serve it up your­self.

Back home be­tween your Gam­bia vis­its, you would live on a shoe­string while you raised money for the Lun­cheon Club.

Two years ago, I no­ticed one name kept crop­ping up in your tales – Jombo, a Kololi bar­man.

‘He’s 15 years younger than me, but we’re good friends,’ you said, show­ing me a pic­ture of a good­look­ing man with a kind smile.

Then, in Fe­bru­ary this year, on a wet Mon­day, you rang from The Gam­bia with news. ‘Me and Jombo are a cou­ple,’ you said, fizzing with joy. ‘We’re engaged!’

You told me you had a sil­ver ring and your fu­ture planned.

Jombo didn’t want to leave his fam­ily in The Gam­bia, so you would con­tinue to visit sev­eral times a year, and once his pass­port was sorted out, he would come to the UK in the rainy sea­son.

‘That’s my girl,’ I thought. ‘She knows what she wants and how to get it.’

I didn’t worry about the age gap – what was the point when you were a grown wo­man, hav­ing a great time with your hand­some toy boy?

You put Jombo on the phone, so I could con­grat­u­late him.

‘Hello, Aun­tie,’ he said shyly. I had no idea where he got that from, but I could hear you chuck­ling in the back­ground.

The next day, you posted pic­tures of your en­gage­ment party on Face­book. The ho­tel had made a cake with your names on, and I could al­most touch your hap­pi­ness on the screen.

Next day, though, you called again to say you were on oxy­gen in the lo­cal clinic, hav­ing col­lapsed in the street after run­ning to the shop to buy milk.

‘Must have been fur­ther than I thought,’ you joked. But I didn’t like the sound of your breath­ing, which sounded laboured and tight.

The clinic felt it would be bet­ter for you to fly home, but even we couldn’t raise £75,000 for a pri­vate plane and med­i­cal as­sis­tance.

Worry grow­ing, Damion, 23, booked a flight to get to your side.

On the Fri­day morn­ing, just as his plane to The Gam­bia was tak­ing off, I got a call from your friend Sue. ‘Linda, I’m so sorry,’ she said. ‘So­nia has died.’

I can’t de­scribe my heartache, the aching sense of loss. You were only 48. You’d pulled through so much to find hap­pi­ness, yet you’d only been engaged four days be­fore your fu­ture was yanked from un­der your feet.

Sue had to break the news to Damion, who vis­ited you in the mor­tu­ary to say good­bye.

Brave boy. He gets his courage from you.

When he went to Kololi, 100 peo­ple flocked round him to shake his hand and tell him what a lovely lady you were.

Your brother, Steven, paid for your body to be flown home and, after play­ing your favourite Bob Mar­ley at your fu­neral, we buried you be­side Christy, Char­lie and Martin, as you wanted.

Your dear Jombo was dis­traught but, now six months on, he still calls me most days and he is run­ning the Gam­bian Lun­cheon Club in your hon­our. It costs about £2,000 a year to feed at least 30 peo­ple a day, so even small do­na­tions go a long way.

We’re do­ing ev­ery­thing we can to sup­port the Club, be­cause it feels like the per­fect legacy. Your brother, Simon, is work­ing hard to raise funds, and Keith has lost a lot of weight, so we’re sell­ing off his old clothes.

I will miss you for ever, my So­nia, but I can feel glad that your last days were full of love, in the place, and with the man, you adored.

All my love, Mum x

To find out more about The Gam­bian Lun­cheon Club, visit face­ gam­bian.lunch

Us work­ing in the cafe Be­sot­ted at a young age, you adored Martin You with the Gam­bian Lun­cheon Club you set up

You with your kids Chelsea and Christy You and your new love, Jombo You and Jombo cel­e­brat­ing your en­gage­ment My grand­son, Damion, is a trooper

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