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Princess Finds the Shoe Fits

Sarah Culberson's hunt for her father cast the actress in a real role as royalty. Did she want it? A trip to his war-torn village gave the answer.

September 15, 2006|Kelly-Anne Suarez | Times Staff Writer

As an adopted child, Sarah Culberson dreamed about what her birth parents looked like and where they came from. But it wasn't until she turned 28 that she finally learned what she'd inherited from her biological father: deep-set brown eyes, a wide smile and reign over a chiefdom in Africa.

She was a princess.

The title was glamorous, but it didn't come with an elegant palace or a jewel-encrusted tiara. In fact, the aspiring Los Angeles actress quickly learned that she was far richer than any of her 36,000 subjects who lived in the southern province of Sierra Leone, a country ravaged by civil war.

In her family's village of Bumpe, the people rejoiced in the news of their newly discovered princess, someone who they had come to regard as a potential savior.

It was a job she wasn't sure she wanted.

*

Two days after her first birthday, Culberson was adopted by Judy and Jim Culberson from a West Virginia state agency. Jim Culberson was a professor of neuroanatomy at West Virginia University. Judy Culberson worked as a special-education instructor at an elementary school. They already had two daughters, but felt moved to give a home to an adopted baby. They were white, and Sarah Culberson grew up as one of the few people of color in Morgantown, W.Va.

"I was the brown girl that didn't match," she said.

Although her childhood was a happy one, Culberson said she tried extra hard to fit in.

"I wanted to make sure I was the best kid ever so they wouldn't send me back," she said.

In 1999, during graduate school at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, Culberson learned that her biological mother, who worked in administration at West Virginia University, had died of cancer a dozen years earlier. Despite that dashed opportunity to know a parent, she made no effort to find her biological father. She had convinced herself he had run away from parenthood and wanted nothing to do with her.

She moved to Los Angeles in 2001 to pursue an acting career and landed roles in movies, television shows and commercials. During a personal growth class in 2004, she realized the one thing in her life she wanted to overcome was her fear of being rejected by her father.

Within days, she had hired a private investigator. Three hours later, he handed her a Maryland address.

Culberson sent a handwritten letter to, it turned out, her father's brother. He forwarded the news, including Culberson's phone number, to Joseph Konia Kposowa in Bumpe, a village of about 2,000 people.

When Kposowa received word about his newfound daughter, he climbed into his aging white Range Rover and lurched across miles of shoddy red-dirt roads to Bo, the closest town with cell-phone reception.

At the same time, Culberson was enjoying an afternoon stroll in Venice. Then her cellphone flashed a foreign area code and she knew. Ducking into a vintage clothing shop, she hid among racks of musty coats and listened to her birth father's voice for the first time.

He apologized for not finding her first.

"Your name changed," he said. "I didn't know how to find you."

He then told her why she was given up for adoption. He was a visiting college student who met her birth mother in West Virginia. After Culberson was born, both parents agreed that they were too young and poor to properly care for the child.

She accepted his apology and then asked his forgiveness. For doubting him. For not believing he would want her in his life.

Kposowa invited her to Africa, where she could meet her family and the people of her chiefdom.

Culberson didn't want to take the trip alone, so she turned to her mentor and former acting coach, John Woehrle. The 54-year-old offered to film her journey. Months later, in December 2004, Culberson and Woehrle landed in Lungi, Sierra Leone.

*

Kposowa and a small entourage met the pair at the airport. As Culberson described her reunion with her father during a recent interview, tears spilled onto her cheeks. She said that when her father stood meekly before her, she saw a fragility in his eyes.

"The man who I thought wouldn't want anything to do with me was so afraid that I wouldn't want anything to do with him," she said.

Before leaving for Bumpe the next morning, Culberson slipped into an emerald African dress whose pattern resembled stained glass, a gift from her father. When the battered Range Rover finally entered Bumpe, Culberson saw hundreds of women coming over a hill, clapping and singing in multipart harmony.

They'd written a song in Mende, the native language, for their new princess: "Sarah, you have come to your homeland, welcome home." All were wearing green dresses similar to hers.

Kposowa explained that the women had traveled to Guinea, a neighboring country, to obtain 600 yards of the fabric. It's customary for the villagers to dress uniformly when an honored guest arrives to show that person that she is not a visitor but a new member of their community.

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