Sarah Culberson saw the unthinkable during her first visit to Bumpe, Sierra Leone, in 2004 — children wandering with missing limbs, schools reduced to rubble, entire neighborhoods destroyed or burned.
This was no leisurely trip to the West African country known for its white sand beaches, though. Arriving in the small town of Bumpe, Culberson was taking stock of the land she would now serve as princess.
“It was overwhelming. The reality wasn’t just, ‘I’m coming to meet my family and everything’s perfect.’ It was a reality check. This is what people have been living through. This is my family. How is this princess going to be part of this community and make a difference in the country?” Culberson said.
“I felt the unrest of Freetown. I could feel in the air that people were nervous and trying to protect themselves. Even though there had been peace for two years, people were still on guard.”
Just two years earlier, a decadelong, brutal civil war in Sierra Leone had come to an end. A rebel force waging a campaign against the government had killed tens of thousands of people, and left many with missing limbs, and the economy in tatters.
Culberson didn’t know much of this history when she began searching for her biological family at 28 years old. She was raised in West Virginia after being adopted by a white family, and later learned that her biological mother died when she was 11 and her father lived in a village in Sierra Leone. Her search for her birth family culminated in a call from her uncle; he delivered the news that changed Culberson’s life forever.
Culberson is related to African royalty, the Mende tribe in Bumpe, Sierra Leone. She is considered a mahaloi, the child of a paramount chief, which makes her princess of the Bumpe village. The Mende are one of the two largest ethnic groups in Sierra Leone, accounting for 33.2 percent of the country’s population. The tribe is generally found in the east and the south of the country.
"My only guidance of what a princess was was what I saw in movies," Culberson explains. “[But] it’s really about responsibility. It’s about walking in my great-grandfather and grandfather’s footsteps and what they’ve done for the country. I realized that’s my role as a princess, to keep moving things forward in the country.”
Culberson, an actress and dancer, says her title didn’t mean she came into wealth. Instead, she says, she inherited an immense responsibility — restoring buildings, promoting safety, and offering hope to people living in a war-torn land. So, she got to work. Alongside her biological brother Hindo Kposowa, Culberson founded the Kposowa Foundation (now called Sierra Leone Rising) in 2006 to rebuild Bumpe High School and promote education in the country.
Welcoming the new princess
Culberson’s ambition was no surprise to her family, though. She’s had a passion for people since she was little, her adoptive father says.
“Sarah was an outgoing, people-meeting, 1-year-old when we adopted her. She is still that same outgoing person who genuinely loves and enjoys almost everyone she meets," James Culberson, a neurobiology professor at West Virginia University, said. “Almost from her first visit to Sierra Leone to meet her father, she saw her ‘princess’ role as one involving trying to find some way to help. She certainly recognized her close connection to a family and chiefdom and country; her work to improve life there has demonstrated tremendous personal growth in many areas.”
Welcoming her marked a rare moment of joy for the Bumpe community. Hundreds of people came out to praise Culberson during a special ceremony in 2006. Her biological father gave her a beautiful green dress, and he wore a matching shirt. There was dancing and singing in Mende, “We’re preparing for Sarah!” Footage of the celebration shows Culberson smiling, perched next to her father.
“It was such a life-altering experience,” she says. “It was shocking, amazing, overwhelming, exciting. It was beautiful, glorious and uplifting!”
But the joyous ceremony could never overshadow the despair evident in the recovering community. So, Culberson put her dreams of being an actress and dancer on hold to fulfill her royal duties. In recent years, Sierra Leone Rising has focused on providing the country with clean drinking water. So far, Culberson says, the foundation has managed to provide nine wells, serving some 12,000 people across Sierra Leone. The group is also working to provide menstruating people with reusable pads. Now, through the foundation, Culberson and Kposowa launched the “Mask On Africa” campaign to help slow the spread of Covid-19 in Sierra Leone.
“I was like, 'OK, let’s do this. I’m willing to do the work. Whatever it takes.' This nonprofit has brought all of us together in such a wonderful way,” Culberson says. “My birth father and I have done a lot of work together with the foundation, along with my brother. I stepped out into a space that has been very new for me and has challenged me in many ways.”
These days, Culberson visits Sierra Leone often but lives in the United States — though she and her boyfriend have discussed moving to the West African country. She published a book about her journey in 2009, and is currently working on an animated series to share her story with young people.
The significance of Culberson’s journey isn’t lost on her friends, either.
“One thing that Sarah has showed me through her journey is you can never tell what you can accomplish when limits become unacceptable,” her long-time friend Amy Cumpston said. “One of my biggest desires for my children is for them to understand the possible impact that they can have in this world. I also want them to understand even more that internal joy that comes from doing this very thing. This joy is always two-fold and incredibly contagious, and Sarah has played a very important role for this example for them.”
It’s been 16 years since Culberson learned of her princess status. Along with running the foundation, Culberson is also a diversity speaker, often addressing companies and organizations looking to foster more inclusive work environments. Although she would love to return to acting and dancing, she says her status as princess has changed the trajectory of her life forever.
“And it’s changed it for the better,” she says. “It definitely had me grow so much as a person, and really quickly. I see the importance. I see I’m just one of the moving parts in the work being done in Sierra Leone. I honor it and I cherish it.”