Call it an obligation. Of the most royal kind.
Sarah Culberson knew she had a real mission in front of her when she set out to find her birth father three years ago.
The biracial woman and 1998 West Virginia University graduate who grew up in a white family in Morgantownher adoptive father is Dr. Jim Culberson, a professor at the School of Medicinefully expected that the quest would take her beyond her emotional borders, and probably even her geographic ones, too.
That was a given. She just wasnt counting on finding out she was a genuine African princess.
Culberson will recount her real-life fable when she delivers keynote remarks at this years Women of Color luncheon today. The event will run from 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m. in the Mountainlair Ballrooms, and is a highlight of this weeks Diversity Week observances.
The week and the luncheon this year also compliment the inauguration of President Mike Garrison, who is calling his executive appointment to his alma mater (and his Friday installation at Woodburn Circle) ahomecoming.
The soon-to-be princess, in effect, wanted to come home, too.
While she was blessed with a loving family in Morgantown who instilled her drive and confidence to pursue acting and dancing in Los Angeles, she also knew that final piece to her psyche could never be clicked inif she didnt simply know the identities and histories of her real mother, and her real father.
She hired a private detective and the story had a sad opening. She learned to her regret that her natural mother had died years before from cancer, but sorrow segued into hope when two other living relatives, brothers, were located in Maryland.
They forwarded a letter to a third brother back home: one Joseph Konio Kposowa, an educator who once attended college in the Mountain State and was now a school headmaster in the tiny village of Bumpe, in Sierra Leone, West Africa.
Sarahs birth father.
He and Culbersons birth mother met while in college. When she got pregnant, they both decided they were too young to raise a family. A baby was given up for adoption.
And now, a father and daughter at least knew of each others existence.
More correspondence and phone calls led to an invitation, and when she got off the plane and was finally able to embrace her father for the first time at a remote airport that was more red clay and dust than tarmac, she had to get her arms around something else.
She was royalty. Really. Her father is a member of the Mende tribe, the ruling family of the southern province of Sierra Leone, which made her, by birth, a princess.
Being a princess in Bumpe was prestigious, but it was hardly glamorous, as Culberson soon discovered. Back home, she was an aspiring dancer and actress on a definite budget in an ultra-expensive city, but in Bumpe, she still had more money in her purse and bank account than any of the 2,000 residents of the village, and 34,000 more citizens who lived in the outlying areas of the province.
Besides the crushing poverty, the country was still carrying the emotional and physical scars of an 11-year civil war that left 60,000 dead and countless others maimed when it ended in 2002.
Bumpe didnt escape the carnage. On one wrenching day when Kposowa was away on business in another part of the province, rebel troops stormed the village, killing men, women and children while severing the arms and hands of othersSo they wouldnt be able to hold a gun,Culberson said. Homes were looted, torched and destroyed, including Kposowas.
In the final cruelty, Bumpe High School, where he serves as headmaster, was heavily damaged. Walls were kicked in and every desk was burned. This in a school, Culberson said, where some students have to walkyes, walkup to 14 miles a day to get there.
Back in Los Angeles, she picked up with her life. She auditioned for dance and acting roles and resumed herday jobas a teacher at a high school for the performing arts. But through the daily routine, she was still trying to process it allher father, her royal title, her extended family in Sierra Leonewhen a plan took shape in the swirl of emotions.
She would be a princess for the people.
She helped launch a fundraising campaign for Bumpe High School, an effort thats already raised $70,000 toward its goal of $200,000.
Last November, she returned to Morgantown for a speaking tour of area schools and special performance/fundraiser with WVU s African Ensemble at the Metropolitan Theatre.
Near the end, she took a question from an elementary-age school girl in the audience:How does it feel to be a princess?
Culberson answered honestly and thanked everyone who opened their checkbooks that night.
In many ways I still feel like the regular Sarah Ive always been,she said.But its also a huge responsibility. Ive seen people in Sierra Leone who have been through so muchpeople who are just trying to survive. There are so many angels in our midst. This is amazing. You have no idea the difference youre making.
Learn more about the campaign and Culbersons experiences in Sierra Leone by visitinghttp://www.bumpenya.com/index.html.
The luncheon is sponsored by WVU s Council for Womens Concerns. For more information on the event and the organization, contact Gloria Browning at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-293-8021.