Actress Sarah Culberson, adopted by white parents around the time she celebrated her first birthday, grew up longing to know more about her ancestry. At 28, she took a trip to Sierra Leone to meet her birth family and discovered she belongs to a royal bloodline.
According to NBC News, a phone call between Culberson and her uncle resulted in her learning her birth mother died when she was 11 and her natural father is related to a royal family within the Mende tribe in Bumpe, Sierra Leone. Among the tribe, Culberson is referred to as a mahaloi, the child of an important chief, which grants her the title of princess.
In 2002, two years before Culberson first traveled to the country, Sierra Leone was in the final stages of a more than 10-year civil war. The Revolutionary United Front (RUF) who was aligning with the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NFPL), attempted a coup of Sierra Leone’s then-President Joseph Momah that resulted in over 50,000 casualties, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Momah was removed from power in 1992 after a key military loss. It wasn’t until January 2002 that Sierra Leone government officials announced that its national Army was able to wrestle back control of the country with the help of the United Nations.
According to The Central Intelligence Agency, Culberson’s people, the Mende, are the second-largest tribe in the country. Typically, Sierra Leoneans speak Mende in the southern portion and Temne in the north, but English is the official language of the country.
“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.
Despite her title, Culberson said being a princess in her tribe amounts more to the way a person supports her community than financial gain or a trove of personal treasures. She said it has shown her how to take responsibility for her community and work to improve the lives of its people.
In 2006, Culberson helped found the Kposowa Foundation, which is now called Sierra Leone Rising, with her biological brother to rebuild a local High School and advocate for educational advancement.
In some of its more recent work, Sierra Leone Rising has been focused on bringing clean drinking water to the beleaguered country. Culberson said the foundation has worked to bring nine wells to Sierra Leone, which serves close to 12,000 people across the country. Now, the group is organizing support to provide menstruation pads for the community and has launched the “Mask On Africa” initiative to fight against the spread of the coronavirus.
"My only guidance of what a princess was was what I saw in movies," she said. “[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.”
In the same year she founded the foundation, the Bumpe community celebrated Culberson with a special ceremony marking her acceptance into the community. Hundreds of people came out to honor Culberson and her birth father gifted her a gorgeous green gown to match his attire as they danced and sang with the Bumpe people.
Her adoptive father said she has always had a passion for helping people.
“Sarah was an outgoing, people-meeting, one-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.
He said she saw her role as a princess as one that meant she had a duty to help others.
“I was like, 'OK, let’s do this. I’m willing to do the work. Whatever it takes.'” Culberson said. “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.”
In 2009, the Bumpe princess published a book about her life journey titled A Princess Found. The book is being adapted into a movie produced by Stephanie Allain, who became the first Black woman to produce the Academy Awards ceremony this year.
Culberson is also developing an animated series about family and community.
“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,” she said.