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Princess Finds the Shoe Fits

Times Staff Writer

As an adopted child, Sarah Culberson dreamed about what her birth parents looked like and where they came from. But it wasn’t until she turned 28 that she finally learned what she’d inherited from her biological father: deep-set brown eyes, a wide smile and reign over a chiefdom in Africa.

She was a princess.

The title was glamorous, but it didn’t come with an elegant palace or a jewel-encrusted tiara. In fact, the aspiring Los Angeles actress quickly learned that she was far richer than any of her 36,000 subjects who lived in the southern province of Sierra Leone, a country ravaged by civil war.

In her family’s village of Bumpe, the people rejoiced in the news of their newly discovered princess, someone who they had come to regard as a potential savior.

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It was a job she wasn’t sure she wanted.

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Two days after her first birthday, Culberson was adopted by Judy and Jim Culberson from a West Virginia state agency. Jim Culberson was a professor of neuroanatomy at West Virginia University. Judy Culberson worked as a special-education instructor at an elementary school. They already had two daughters, but felt moved to give a home to an adopted baby. They were white, and Sarah Culberson grew up as one of the few people of color in Morgantown, W.Va.

“I was the brown girl that didn’t match,” she said.

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Although her childhood was a happy one, Culberson said she tried extra hard to fit in.

“I wanted to make sure I was the best kid ever so they wouldn’t send me back,” she said.

In 1999, during graduate school at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, Culberson learned that her biological mother, who worked in administration at West Virginia University, had died of cancer a dozen years earlier. Despite that dashed opportunity to know a parent, she made no effort to find her biological father. She had convinced herself he had run away from parenthood and wanted nothing to do with her.

She moved to Los Angeles in 2001 to pursue an acting career and landed roles in movies, television shows and commercials. During a personal growth class in 2004, she realized the one thing in her life she wanted to overcome was her fear of being rejected by her father.

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Within days, she had hired a private investigator. Three hours later, he handed her a Maryland address.

Culberson sent a handwritten letter to, it turned out, her father’s brother. He forwarded the news, including Culberson’s phone number, to Joseph Konia Kposowa in Bumpe, a village of about 2,000 people.

When Kposowa received word about his newfound daughter, he climbed into his aging white Range Rover and lurched across miles of shoddy red-dirt roads to Bo, the closest town with cell-phone reception.

At the same time, Culberson was enjoying an afternoon stroll in Venice. Then her cellphone flashed a foreign area code and she knew. Ducking into a vintage clothing shop, she hid among racks of musty coats and listened to her birth father’s voice for the first time.

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He apologized for not finding her first.

“Your name changed,” he said. “I didn’t know how to find you.”

He then told her why she was given up for adoption. He was a visiting college student who met her birth mother in West Virginia. After Culberson was born, both parents agreed that they were too young and poor to properly care for the child.

She accepted his apology and then asked his forgiveness. For doubting him. For not believing he would want her in his life.

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Kposowa invited her to Africa, where she could meet her family and the people of her chiefdom.

Culberson didn’t want to take the trip alone, so she turned to her mentor and former acting coach, John Woehrle. The 54-year-old offered to film her journey. Months later, in December 2004, Culberson and Woehrle landed in Lungi, Sierra Leone.

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Kposowa and a small entourage met the pair at the airport. As Culberson described her reunion with her father during a recent interview, tears spilled onto her cheeks. She said that when her father stood meekly before her, she saw a fragility in his eyes.

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“The man who I thought wouldn’t want anything to do with me was so afraid that I wouldn’t want anything to do with him,” she said.

Before leaving for Bumpe the next morning, Culberson slipped into an emerald African dress whose pattern resembled stained glass, a gift from her father. When the battered Range Rover finally entered Bumpe, Culberson saw hundreds of women coming over a hill, clapping and singing in multipart harmony.

They’d written a song in Mende, the native language, for their new princess: “Sarah, you have come to your homeland, welcome home.” All were wearing green dresses similar to hers.

Kposowa explained that the women had traveled to Guinea, a neighboring country, to obtain 600 yards of the fabric. It’s customary for the villagers to dress uniformly when an honored guest arrives to show that person that she is not a visitor but a new member of their community.

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The petite princess walked toward the pack of smiling faces with a blend of trepidation and fascination. “I was terrified,” she said. “I had no idea what to do, what to say.” After a few loaded moments of silence, she discovered she need not say a word. She only rocked her head back and forth in time with their song.

The gesture sent a jolt through the women, who broke into cheers. They enveloped Culberson, fighting for hugs and kisses as they led her down the hill to an awaiting reception.

She took her seat at the head table, beside her uncle, the paramount chief.

“Our daughter has come home,” the chief said during his speech. “She’s been away, but we are going to make it up to her.” They christened her Bumpenya, a Mende word for Lady of Bumpe.

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Over the next few weeks, Culberson’s family recounted the recent grim history of the village. During Sierra Leone’s 11-year civil war that killed an estimated 60,000 people, Bumpe wasn’t spared.

While her father was away at a nearby village, rebel troops entered Bumpe and severed the hands of men, women and children so they would be unable to hold a gun. They destroyed buildings and homes, including Kposowa’s, and killed villagers.

For a month, the invaders camped in Bumpe High School, which was founded by Culberson’s grandfather in 1963 and is now run by Kposowa.

The school held a special place in Sierra Leone’s society. Five hundred students came from across the country and other parts of Africa to study in Bumpe. Students from nearby villages travel up to 14 miles a day on foot.

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By the time the rebels left, most of the school’s buildings and everything in them had been destroyed. The students remained, but they had no desks, books, supplies or even a roof over their heads.

Life today is still hard in Bumpe, a village mostly of farmers (who grow rice, cassava and yams) and teachers who live in small, clay-brick homes in an area about the size of a football field. Villagers earn about $50 month. Their life expectancy hovers at about 40.

For Culberson, the trip was dizzying. When she returned to Los Angeles, she felt guilty for eating out or splurging on anything frivolous. She would awake to 3 a.m. phone calls from villagers desperate for financial help. Her friends in the film industry advised her to sell her story to a production company. “Call Oprah,” others said.

Wohrle, her mentor, set up a nonprofit organization called the Kposowa Foundation (www.bumpefund.com) to rebuild Bumpe High School, but she couldn’t focus.

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Every time someone asked a favor of her, she worried that she was being selfish or spoiled if she declined. When Africans come to America, they are expected to do everything they can to bolster their communities back home. “They know it, they do it,” she said.

Culberson wrestled with her obligations to the tribe for months, until one afternoon in April of this year.

She had met with Wohrle to go over fundraising ideas for the Kposowa Foundation and began to talk about the rebels: About how they burned every desk in Bumpe’s school. About how they took a machete to her aunt’s neck. About how her father had to teach his two children by candlelight for four years while in hiding.

“How could people be so evil?” she said, getting angrier by the moment. “How can you do that to your brothers and sisters?”

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That rage snapped her out of her funk, Culberson said.

Since then, she has reorganized her life and her finances. Now when the villagers phone her, she knows exactly how much she is able to give.

And she threw herself into the foundation and organized an end-of-the-school-year carnival at Brentwood School, where she teaches dance. It raised $820, a small step toward the $200,000 fundraising goal.

Sarah’s mother serves on the foundation’s board.

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“She went looking for the truth, and we supported her,” said Judy Culberson, who is planning a West Virginia fundraiser in the fall. “We always knew there was a story, and I didn’t know that story would take us all the way to Africa.”

Two years after she sent the letter that changed her life, Sarah says she is finally at peace with her role as Bumpe’s princess -- though she never wants to be chief, or even live full-time in Sierra Leone.

“That is a responsibility that I am not interested in this lifetime,” she said.

She does, however, look at Bumpe as a third home -- along with Morgantown and Los Angeles.

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She plans to visit again in December, this time with her American father.

Kposowa said he would love for her to rule the chiefdom but understands that her life’s course is set in a different direction. And it pleases him to have a daughter representing Sierra Leone in America. Culberson said she feels the same way.

“I feel so blessed,” she said. “I don’t think it’s any coincidence we were separated. I really think I was meant to help. That’s why I was put on this Earth.”


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