Real-Life Fairy Tale
A West Virginia woman discovers she’s an African princess.
Sept. 25, 2006 issue – It’s something that every little girl fantasizes about … that the phone will ring and the voice on the other end of the line will tell her she’s not the lonely, gawky girl that she thought she was. That she is, in fact, a princess.
And that’s exactly what happened to Sarah Culberson. In 2004, 28-year old Culberson, a biracial woman who had been adopted by a white family in West Virginia as a baby—hired a private investigator to find her biological father. (Her mother, she had been informed a few years earlier, had died of breast cancer.) The investigator called back within three hours; the information he yielded was a shocker: her father was a member of the ruling family of the Mende tribe in the Southern Province of Sierra Leone. She was, by birthright, a princess. “I just about fell off my seat,” says Culberson, an aspiring actress who had trained in San Francisco. “I mean, a princess. To be totally honest, it was really cool.”
If a bit frightening. Culberson was able to contact her father’s brother, who promised to pass on her contact information to her dad. Two weeks went by, time Culberson spent wondering if she’d be welcome in her father’s life—or his world. When he called, the first words he spoke to her were comforting: “He told me, ‘Please forgive me. I didn’t know how to find you,’” she says. “And then he said, ‘When can I meet you? I want you to come.’” In December, Culberson flew to his village, Bumpe. She brought along a filmmaker friend to record the reunion.
Culberson received a royal welcome. As she drove into the city, hundreds of villagers swarmed the car to welcome her. The women of the village, dressed identically in long, green dresses, sang and danced. And then she met her father, who—to her delight—had eyes similar to her own. “To look like some one is amazing,” says Culberson. “Most people take it for granted, but I grew up in a family where my sisters had blonde hair with green eyes. I stood out. For the first time to look like someone… it was the most beautiful gift in the whole world.”
But Culberson quickly discovered that being a princess wasn’t all diamonds, castles and princes. Bumpe had been nearly decimated by the country’s 11-year civil war. One of her aunts had been killed by rebels; another bore scars from being slashed in the neck with a machete. Her father had hidden in a small room outside of the village for four years while many of his friends were hunted—and slaughtered. Most people lived in poverty and the village’s school, where her father was headmaster, was in ruins.
Even still, the villagers were unbelievably generous. Before Culberson arrived, her father asked what kind of food she liked. She told him that she loved rice and chicken—not knowing that chicken is a delicacy in Bumpe. Most families have only one chicken, which they raise throughout the year and then save for a special occasion. But when news spread about her preference, people showed up every day—some traveling from nearby villages—to leave her a live chicken at her door. “I was so overwhelmed,” she says. “They have so little. I never would have asked for so much.”
Now Culberson is making it her mission to return the favor. When she returned to the United States, she established a foundation to raise funds to save her dad’s school; her goal is to have it completely rebuilt by fall, 2007. Her filmmaker friend has turned her quest into a feature-length documentary, “Bumpenya.” The film is still in production and Culberson hopes it will raise awareness for her cause. “My life and my priorities have completely changed,” says Culberson. “I don’t get upset at silly things anymore. My purpose now is to rebuild the school and bring peace to the people of Sierra Leone.” Or, in other words, to allow them to live happily ever after.
For more information about Bumpe, visit www.bumpenya.com