"My only guidance of what a princess was was what I saw in movies," Sarah Culberson explained. "[But] it's really about responsibility."
Editor's note: This article was originally published on June 23, 2021. It has since been updated.
When Sarah Culberson first set foot in Bumpe, Sierra Leone, in 2004, she had no idea what to expect. It had only been days since she'd discovered her biological father, learned she had family in West Africa and that she was considered a princess in that part of the world. And now here she was, across the Atlantic Ocean, witnessing the unthinkable: children with missing limbs, schools reduced to rubble, and entire neighborhoods destroyed or burned to the ground. "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 told NBC News.
"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," she added. Raised in West Virginia after being adopted by a White family two days before her first birthday, Sarah had grown up oblivious to the decade-long, brutal civil war in Sierra Leone that killed tens of thousands of people and left many without limbs. It was only when she began searching for her biological family at 28 years old that she found her utterly unexpected link to the country.
After discovering that her biological mother had died when she was 11, Sarah hired a private investigator to search for her biological father. The search culminated in a call from her uncle who gave her some life-altering information about herself. "Oh, Sarah, we are so happy you've been found! Do you know who you are? You are part of a royal family. Your great-grandfather was a paramount chief. Your grandfather, your uncle runs a chiefdom of 45000 (now 70000). You can be chief. You're considered a princess in this country," Sarah recounted her uncle's words to NowThis News.
Sarah learned that day that she is related to the Mende tribe in Bumpe which is African royalty. The Mende — generally found in the east and the south of the country — are one of the two largest ethnic groups in Sierra Leone, accounting for 33.2 percent of the country’s population. As the child of a paramount chief, Sarah is considered a mahaloi, which makes her princess of the Bumpe village. "My only guidance of what a princess was was what I saw in movies," she explained. "[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."
Contrary to popular belief, Sarah's prestigious title didn't mean she came into wealth. Instead, she inherited the immense responsibility of restoring buildings, promoting safety, and offering hope to people who'd lived through a brutal war. Teaming up with her biological brother Hindo Kposowa, Sarah founded the Kposowa Foundation to help rebuild Bumpe High School and promote education in the country. "Almost from her first visit to Sierra Leone to meet her father, [Sarah] 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," said James Culberson, Sarah's adoptive father.
Since being established in 2006, the Kposowa Foundation — now called Sierra Leone Rising — has focused on providing the country with clean drinking water. As of December 2020, the foundation had managed to provide nine wells, which serve about 12,000 people across Sierra Leone. The group is also working to provide reusable pads to menstruating people with the hopes of reducing the rate of school dropouts due to no access to menstrual products. Sarah and Kposowa also launched the "Mask On Africa" campaign last year 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," said Sarah. "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." Finding out she's a princess has changed the trajectory of her life forever, she added. "And it's changed it for the better," she said. "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."