Sarah Culberson was adopted as a wee babe in West Virginia, as fate would have it. She’s not alone. Every year, U.S. citizens take in around 13,000 children from more than 100 countries. The star of our story today had origins all the way in Sierra Leone, West Africa. That’s pretty far – but as the saying goes, “Family is not defined by our genes, it is built and maintained through love.” Ain’t that the truth?
The Culberson household was filled with love. But of course, as an adult, Sarah started to wonder about her real background and went searching. What she found could only be described as a fairy tale, and there’s a reason this has been picked up by Disney. Soon, audiences will see it on the big screen. But today, it’s time to read about the shocking, one-in-a-billion result that even 23andMe wouldn’t have found. Let’s begin!
Meet the Culbersons, Raising Kids and Groovin’ in the 70s
Sarah was born in West Virginia to a white American mother and an African father. But very early on, she was put into foster care. That’s where Jim and Judy Culberson came in. The local couple were strong Methodists and already had experience raising two girls. Why not share more love through adoption?
If they had any doubts, that all disappeared when meeting this charming baby in need. And the Culbersons were certainly prepared to take on a new challenge. Professionally, Jim was a professor at West Virginia University in neuroanatomy. Judy was a special education instructor for youngsters. Tiny Sarah was entering a very clever household before her first birthday. And that suited her just fine!
They Nurtured Sarah’s Natural Talents, Right From the Start
Although Sarah looked different than everyone in her town, she never felt left out. Her family and her community cheered her on in musicals and basketball and elected her as student body president and homecoming queen. Mom and dad were incredibly proud, obviously.
After high school, Sarah joined her professor dad at WVU on a theater scholarship. Then, she went to grad school for fine art at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. Her big plan coming out of it? Hollywood, baby. Sarah began auditioning for TV!
It Was a Dream Family, But Sarah Had Curiosities Deep Down
The big move to Los Angeles was successful right away. Sarah snagged minor roles on television shows like Boston Legal and she was cast in the film American Dreamz. And on the side, she was a professional dancer with the group Contra-Tiempo. Such talent! She remained close with her family back home, who was ecstatic at her growing career. But all the while, there were nagging questions about her biological parents. Just who were they – and where were they?
In Los Angeles, it was easy to hire a private investigator, So hire she did, and news quickly came back about her birth mom. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to Sarah, this woman had passed away from cancer years ago when Sarah was 11. They would never get the chance to meet. All that was left was her father’s side. How did that go?
She Tracked Down Blood Relatives, On Her Father’s Side
Sarah waited patiently to see if anything could be found. She knew her father was a foreigner, so it might be tough. But news came that the investigator had located the man, and he advised her to write a letter. Within days, she actually received a phone call from her uncle. Turns out, he had a very similar name. What he told her was life-changing, to say the least. Mindblowing might be more accurate!
Sarah recalled: “And then my uncle gets on the phone. He goes, ‘Oh, Sarah, we are so happy you’ve been found. Do you know who you are and I’m like, ‘I’m Sarah?’ He says you are part of a royal family. Your great-grandfather was a paramount chief. Your grandfather, your uncle runs a chiefdom of 45,000 now 70,000. You can be chief. You are considered a princess in this country.” Say what?
Dad Was No Ordinary African On a Student Visa, Back in the Day
This was absolutely wild stuff. Could any of this really be true? It was hard to process for Sarah, but the details kept coming. Unbeknownst to her, she was the daughter of Prince Joseph Konia Kposowa, a member of a royal family in Sierra Leone. Her grandfather had apparently been the Paramount Chief of the Bumpe people in that country. Obviously, that made her a princess!
Why had he disappeared? Sarah always wondered this deep down, as all adopted children do. But now, she heard the real story. Dad was on a foreign exchange in college, and mom agreed they were just too young to be parents. She was a cafeteria worker and a student, without money. He didn’t even have citizenship in the country! As she heard more and more, things seemed complicated. She wrote him a letter, hoping to reconnect. Did he reply?
Sarah Realized She Was a Royal, For Real – In West Virginia, All This Time
Indeed, her father did. They connected on a phone call, in which he explained her name had changed, and he had no idea how to ever find her after the adoption. She grew up during the 70s and 80s, after all, and there was no internet! To her great relief, he wanted to meet her now.
The catch? It would be difficult for him to get a visa to the United States. He wondered if she would be willing to visit Africa, as a compromise. As an adventurous gal with a deep need to know more, the answer was an obvious yes. A heck yes, even!
The Journey Was Long, Dark, and Wild
With the Culbersons, Sarah decided to take her first warm trip to the motherland. But it was no easy trek and took more than 24 hours to complete. She explained: “You go through London and Brussels, and once you land, you’ve got to get a car and get to a ferry. And if you arrive at nighttime, it looks like the ferry is driving into nothing, because it’s completely dark. It’s an hour to Freetown, and you spend the night in a hotel because it’s not safe to drive at night.”
And according to Sarah, that was just the first half: “The roads are no good, and you can’t see anything. There’s no electricity…You can’t go a normal speed. And you have to have an off-road kind of car or you won’t make it.” All the while, they had to deal with 90 percent humidity and 90-degree heat. It’s a miracle they even made it! Prince Joe was right there to meet the group in this brave new world. Finally, the big day was happening.
Dear Old Dad Was Super Nervous to Meet Her, in Person
Sarah quickly realized she was not the only one who was nervous. Her birth pop wasn’t sure how she would feel about his absence in her life, even though he was open to her now. To welcome her, he gave her a beautiful green dress, which matched his own shirt. Like father, like daughter!
But quickly, she saw herself in him. Looking at his face, they did appear to share features. She learned he loved to dance, just like her. And that wasn’t all. Just like her adoptive parents, Prince Joseph was a teacher by trade. After college, he went back to Sierra Leone and became the headmaster of Bumpe High School. What are the odds?
Things Quickly Got Interesting As She Began to Meet the Clan
Joseph Kposowa could have become chief after his own father died. But he really loved his mission at the local school. The crown went to his brother, and that was fine by him. Sarah loved his passion for education. And thankfully, she was able to talk to him about it in English, since he had been a student in America. She was delighted to learn her chief uncle lived in the UK for a bit, and also knew her mother tongue. And they weren’t alone!
Some in the village of Bumpe also spoke a version of English called Krio, based on American Creole former slaves introduced after they emigrated back to Africa. When it was time to meet the village, an official welcome was planned. The lost princess of Bumpe had arrived!
Loving, Adoptive Parents Were Escorts to the Royal Introduction
Sarah was accompanied by Jim and Judy as hundreds of people came out to sing and dance. She recalled: “When I got to the village, all of the women came forward…and they were singing ‘We’re preparing for Sarah’ in Mende.” She met half brothers and sisters, cousins, and new friends. It was touching, to say the least!
Sure, Sarah had been student body royalty. Homecoming queen is an honor, for any young person. But it’s not every day that an American finds out they have blue blood abroad. And honestly, this was the stuff of the movies she had been trying to get into, all along. As she learned more, she understood she was part of the Mende people, one of the two large ethnic groups in Sierra Leone. Around 33% of the country shared her heritage. Who knew?
Bonding in New Ways, Sarah Learned About the Pain and Joy of Bumpe
The intro was like nothing she had ever seen, beyond the imaginations of Hollywood. She would later recall: “It was such a life-altering experience…It was shocking, amazing, overwhelming, exciting. It was beautiful, glorious, and uplifting!” But the country actually had made it into a film before. Leonardo DiCaprio fans may remember the chaos from Blood Diamond, in 2006. Yes, Bumpe was a part of that.
The 11-year war had resulted in a lot of atrocities, and Sarah was now seeing post-conflict reality. Neighborhoods were still rubble, houses were burned, and people were dealing with permanent injuries. All this meant economic disaster. Sarah was amazed at their emotional resilience: There was so much joy leftover for her ceremony, still.
Coming From America, Sarah Was Used to Modern Luxury
There was a lot more to learn where that came from. Just spending a bit of time in Bumpe showed her just how different life might have been if she had lived with her biological father in the 70s. She found it hard to explain what she witnessed there. Everything took so much effort and so much time.
Sarah noticed the little hardships: “Even the simplest things like walking in the house, flipping on the lights and turning on the water to wash our hands…We take something out of the freezer, we eat leftovers, throw something in the microwave or go down the street. There all the food is made fresh every day. There’s a lot more energy expended just for a normal day.” Did it have to be this way?
Sarah Realized Something Had to Be Done
Maybe there was another future for Bumpe. Sarah started to think about how she could be a part of this community as a royal, even if she was soon returning to LA. Sierra Leone had been through so much, and they still had so far to go. Heading back, there was a lot to process.
She recalled: “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…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.” How could they not be?
Now A Part of Two Families and Two Worlds, Nothing Would Be the Same
For the empathetic Sarah Culberson, the pain was acute. But so was the joy, in equal amounts. As she left Africa a confirmed Princess, she knew it was real. But it felt like a dream! She recalled: “I was literally pinching myself. The girl who used to win the track meets, was the varsity basketball player, the high school homecoming queen, who was always trying to be the best. This time, I just showed up and that was enough.”
Overall, the trip was a life-altering experience. The shock, amazement, and good feelings all around could not be overstated. On the journey back, Sarah started to ponder ways she could uplift these beautiful villagers. Only then, her real mission began.
Reimagining the Role of 21st Century Princess
The job description of modern royals is not well defined. Sure, the public sees William and Kate, and Harry with Meghan Markle. But England has different challenges than Africa. How could Sarah adapt familiar models to her new position? The task was a tricky one, and she got to thinking.
Sarah eventually concluded: “My only guidance of what a princess was was what I saw in movies…[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.” She knew the real move she needed to make, right away.
Founding An Organization, Princess Sarah Was Revolutionary
Along with one of her new half-brothers, Hindo Kposowa, Sarah founded a nonprofit: Sierra Leone Rising. They had a lot of health and educational goals in mind. After any civil war, there’s a lot of healing to do. Improving the quality of life of these victims of conflict seemed very possible with the right can-do attitude.
At this point, Sarah put all of her acting dreams on hold. It was time to fulfill her royal duties, and that meant she couldn’t have competing distractions. She started brainstorming with her brothers and they did have a lot of ideas to plan. But before the most exciting innovations, there was something very basic that needed to happen.
Water Problems Were Rampant, and That Was Alarming
One thing Sarah always took for granted was turning on the tap. In Bumpe, that was not even an option. People drank out of shallow wells in the ground, but many became contaminated over time. It was a constant problem, and sickness was common — preventable sickness, worst of all.
Sierra Leone Rising decided to tackle this foundational problem first. Partnering with another organization called World Hope, they tried to bring clean drinking water to the lives of the Mende people. Using drills wells that reached a deep aquifer, consistent h2O could be available. No more dirty wells!
A Remarkable Campaign Changed Basics For the Better
Sarah put out a call for fundraising online. She explained the plan: “The wells cost $11,000 each, but through our partnership with World Hope, we are teaming up together on 20 wells which would leave each of us with the cost of $6,500 per well!”
In exchange for a personal or group donation, she would put their name on the well itself. Evidently, this was a great pitch. Beyond Bumpe, the initiative was able to provide nine wells for 12,000 people in Sierra Leone. The clean water helped to eliminate Typhoid in the area, no small feat. Princess Sarah already had her first victory!
Sarah Always Was a People Person, According to the Culberson Clique
Back home, Jim and Judy Culberson were not surprised. Not only was Sarah always a renaissance gal, but she was a people person from the start. It’s no wonder she took to this role with such ease, according to her West Virginian family. Dad shared: “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.”
Everyone who knew Sarah watched her grow in new ways. She became incredibly excited about expanding the foundation, using all her knowledge and connections for good. She had plenty of energy for the challenge at hand — and that was a good thing since Bumpe had quite a lot of fix. What was next?
With Futuristic Plans, Sarah Began to Rebuild Bumpe
The center of progress for a village has to be the school, Sarah figured. And after the civil war, much of the educational infrastructure had been severely damaged. It was time to rebuild what had existed, and then start improving. Rebels had destroyed the dining hall. Sarah rebuilt it. They had decimated the Home Economics building. She rebuilt that, too.
Then, there was the issue of books. The school library just didn’t have updated resources to bring the students into the 21st century. Sarah made sure it was furnished with the appropriate titles. Word got around about her efforts. Later, Oprah’s Angel Fund chipped in and helped to expand the printed collection. Thousands of students would go through and use it all!
A New Vision and a Tech Curriculum for Her People
But the future may not always involve a printing press. Computers are second nature for American students in the classroom, at this point. But Bumpe was not there yet. Sarah decided to bring tech to the school in a few ways. First, she started basic classes on how to use the devices. A computer lab was set up for students to explore the internet and a special program for girls who wanted to learn to code.
What’s more, Sarah wanted to connect them to people outside their limited village. More than 100 students opened Facebook and email accounts to do just that. High schools in America and Costa Rica began a writing exchange with them online. Nothing had ever happened like this in the history of Bumpe!
Double Bad Luck, Ebola Struck Sierra Leone After War
As Sarah got to know the villagers, she kept in touch. As it would turn out, war was not the only obstacle they would deal with in recent years. The terrifying epidemic from the movie Outbreak hit Sierra Leone, and the deadly illness really disrupted the education for youngsters.
Students were shut out for over eight months during the panic. Formal teaching stopped, personal tragedies struck. Princess Sarah might have been far away in Los Angeles, but she knew she would return soon to help do damage control. What was her strategy?
Sarah Didn’t Forget the Orphans, Even if the World Did
Sadly, there were children who lost their parents to Ebola. They were often now housed with relatives or neighbors, but no one had extra cash. Sierra Leone Rising came to fill in this gap with new books, school supplies, backpacks, and uniforms for these orphans. Where there was a will, there was a way!
Why was this a priority, in a place with many competing problems? The foundation explains in its literature: “Education is the best ultimate solution to most cultural or economic issues everywhere.” The idea was hard for donors to argue with, and Sarah never lost her focus.
A Working Royal, Through and Through
Changing the world sounds lofty. Sarah made it look easy. But was it harder than it looks? According to the princess: “I would be lying to say this isn’t challenging at times, because if you go and see what’s needed, you feel like, oh my god, I want to do everything. But you’ve got to take one thing at a time.”
Yes, one thing at a time is right. In Sarah’s case, that list of things was getting longer by the day. It’s no small feat to bring an African village ravaged by war and illness into the light again. There were all sorts of things that only someone who really cared would even think about. What were the little things that changed lives next?
Projects Got Even More Creative, Wowing Donors
To study in the dark, students needed appropriate lighting. Solar-powered lanterns? Check. To get to high school eight miles away or more, students needed bikes. Sarah started a program so they could all use speedy wheels on loan. Highly motivated students could finally catch a break!
There were personal issues few would think about from far away. But for girls all around the world, menstruating affects education. Surprisingly enough, it takes them out of school each month or causes them to drop out. For Sarah, this was unacceptable. She provided reusable pads that could be easily washed by hand. Now, periods would just be the end of a sentence — not the end of education.
Honestly, Chasing Acting Roles Just Seemed Silly Now
Life brought an unexpected surprise to Sarah Culberson when she met her biological father. But it was all for the best. There was no way that Hollywood could have provided this fulfillment, as Sarah explained: “It caused me to be someone I didn’t know I could be. It’s given me a whole other purpose in life, and that purpose is a gift in itself. And it doesn’t have to come with jewels and a castle.”
At this stage, she was providing prosthetic limbs for war amputees, providing masks for the corona pandemic, planning solar panels for the village, and much more. She managed to do this from America, most of the time. It was great to visit when she could, of course.
Keeping in Touch Was a No-Brainer, But a Challenge
In between trips, Sarah made an effort to continue building a relationship with Prince Joseph Kposowa. It was tough sometimes, for technical reasons. The reception got pretty bad out in the boonies of Africa. Sometimes, a little trial and error were needed to make it work!
Sarah explained: “He has to stand under this tree in the front yard, or go into the back or up on this hill – or go to a neighboring city to get any phone reception. Then if he calls, he can only talk for a few minutes because it’s so expensive. I can call him anytime, but it won’t go through. He has to be on that spot.” Little by little, right?
Sarah Published a Memoir That Was Impossible to Ignore
After years of developing her identity, Sarah Culberson decided to put a pen to paper and document her journey. She had a hunch people would love to hear a modern Cinderella story. Along with a co-author, she published the memoir A Princess Found: An American Family, an African Chiefdom, and the Daughter Who Connected Them All.
The details are heartwarming. But overall, the message that pervades the text is about duty. Sarah believes her discovery was not only a gift to the people of Bumpe, but a gift to her, as well. She is so happy to serve and connect, in a way she never planned. It was a long road from West Virginia to West Africa, but she never turned back.
Her Heart is in Sierra Leone, Even When She’s in LA
While in America, Sarah serves on the board of her old dance group, Contra-Tiempo. She works as director of service-learning at a California school and organizes service trips to Sierra Leone. She regularly gives lectures on her story, and audiences are fascinated. How could they not be?
Princess Sarah has a mission, and it’s being made into a movie. But on a personal note, that’s only half the joy. She shares: “Getting my family on top of it, meeting my half-brother and half-sister, singing songs with them, dancing with them, talking. That’s priceless.” Priceless, indeed!
Her Supportive Sister Loved To See All That Good Press
Over time, Sarah’s story kept making news. She was featured on CNN, BBC radio, Good Morning America, and even on Singapore News. The world was watching. And so was her older sis! Even though she was now a princess with ties to another continent, she never forgot her loving, primary family.
Down to earth as her West Virginian kin was, they understood she was becoming very famous. Sarah had her small roles in Hollywood years ago. But those TV gigs didn’t connect her to the biggest names in the biz. Who was taking notice of her humanitarian projects?
Rapper Akon Was Interested in the Story as a Fellow African
Senegalese superstar Akon took notice of the work Sarah was promoting around the industry. He loved that her nonprofit increasing literacy, health, and safety for impoverished African towns. As a name frequently on most powerful celebs in Africa lists, what could he do to help her back?
Perhaps he could lend his name to endorse her book! On social media, he confessed to reading A Princess Found, the story of Sierra Leonean princess Sarah Culberson. The benefit? A whole new group of fans found out about Sierra Leone Rising, as a result. Sarah decided to promote his projects, next.
The Feeling is Mutual, Because She is a Big Fan of His Work
As it turns out, Akon is a bit of a philanthropist himself. He started a project to provide electricity to 15 countries in Africa, in 2014. Aptly named Akon Lighting Africa, the concept focuses on solar energy in a place with a whole lot of sun, year-round. His small energy systems and solar street lights are even in Sierra Leone, now!
Sarah loved the whole idea. She shared: “So inspired by what AKON is doing to bring electricity and light to Africa! What a GREAT initiative! This just shows what a few change-makers like Akon and his co-founders can do when your heart and mission are in the right place. They have profoundly transformed the lives of millions by just making electricity possible.” Electrifying stuff, really.
Sarah Keeps Meeting Zendaya, So She Got a Copy of the Book
Millennials and Gen Z know her well: Zendaya is an American actress and singer who first made waves on the Disney channel. These days, she’s a style icon, too. Sarah probably plotted: If Zendaya is going to use her fame for anything, why not support Sierra Leone Rising?
It seems that the pair kept bumping into each other and posing at industry events. Recently, their run-in included a selfie with Sarah’s published story. Zen has already worked with the UN on a number of projects in Africa. Perhaps a collab is coming.
Legendary Director Spike Lee Probably Wishes He Met Her Sooner
Even more exciting, perhaps, was meeting top names in film she couldn’t access before. Sarah posed with Spike Lee at an event after chatting with him about her story. The man is a true storyteller, as the director of films like Do the Right Thing, Jungle Fever, Malcolm X, and more recently, BlacKkKlansman.
Spike’s production company, 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, is a pretty busy enterprise. The studio has put out 35 films since 1983. Sarah’s tale might have made a good script, truthfully. But it seems she was already dealing with Disney. Sorry, Spike!
Making Friends With Jayden Smith Was Cool, of Course
With so much networking in entertainment circles it was inevitable that Sarah was going to meet at least one of the Smiths. Will Smith’s son, Jaden Smith, seems to be everywhere, these days. He’s all grown up, and looks a bit different than he did in his cameo in The Pursuit of Happyness with dad.
Now in his early 20s, he is experimenting in TV and music. But in his free time, he is interested in projects that do seem to be right up Sarah’s alley. Jaden is involved with a company called Just Water, a venture that hopes to create a cheap filtration system for poor countries. I
Host Tamron Hall Got a Super Special Surprise on Air
When daytime talk show host Tamron Hall invited Sarah to the program to tell her story, viewers were dazzled. The discovery that she was a princess was mind-blowing enough for Tamron. But Sarah wanted to involve her new fan a bit more in the process of improving Sierra Leone. What did she do?
Without any warning, Sarah made an announcement during the interview. In a touching move, she made Tamron an honorary member of the tribe — and would name a well after her, too. Needless to say, this celeb probably told a few more of her wealthy friends that she now provides water for thousands out there. Smart promotion, from a very smart princess!
Disney Film Will Only Reach More Girls, Which Tickles Her
Throughout her projects, there is always a special focus on women’s empowerment. According to Sarah: “I feel just as passionate about empowering the minds of young women around the world today as I did back then. It’s important for us to support all women and girls around the world. We are all connected. When you empower a girl, you empower a nation!”
Dealing with issues like mensuration sanitation, skin bleaching, and high school dropouts is no walk in the royal park. But it’s about to be the stuff Disney movies are made of, and the world will know so much more. When Sarah actually sees her story as a Disney princess, that’s going to be a big moment in her life. Isn’t that every little girl’s dream?
Service Trips Continue, Because She Will Never Be Too Hollywood to Help
There’s no way this princess is ever going to be too glam for the real gig. Always thinking of new ways to open up the world to Bumpe, Sarah doesn’t forget other side. She never tires of seeing young Americans witness global conversations, as she puts it. The kids share music and art, and laugh together. How has that impacted LA kids?
One Oakwood student described her experience visiting Sierra Leone as life-changing. She shared: “Throughout the trip, we spoke with survivors of Sierra Leone’s civil war, attended the community’s church service and collaborated with students from the local school in building a sign post and painting a map of the world on the wall of the school library…I am incredibly grateful to have worked alongside and learned from them throughout my time there.”
Los Angeles and Sierra Leone Are United Forever, Thanks to Sarah
Meeting peers in other countries is pretty interesting stuff. But after typical service trips, the education ends. Sarah didn’t want that to happen, after all her effort. Why not stimulate and inspire those students year round, while learning about the big wide world?
The initiatives now grow every year. She explained: “There is nothing I love more than working with educators to inspire young people and adults to overcome their fears and take on their dreams, so they can learn how to use their voice to make a difference in this world!” Perhaps they will, one day. If Princess Sarah Culberson has any say in the matter, they just might!