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Princess Sarah Culberson, of Sierra Leone (and Morgantown): ‘I couldn’t go back and pretend I didn’t see that’

In the most fundamental of ways, this story starts with a number.

Well, that, plus a bestowed title of royalty, which ended up being more amazing, than fundamental.  

That’s why Sarah Culberson was in front of an appreciative audience at WVU’s Mountainlair Ballroom on Wednesday evening.

The number, first: On a typical fall Saturday in Morgantown, if the game is right, Milan Puskar Stadium will be transformed into a temporary, four-quarter lodging of 60,000 people — most of them owing a full-throated allegiance to WVU’s football Mountaineers.

Sixty-thousand people.

That’s how many died in a cruel, grinding 11-year civil war that ended in 2002 in the West African nation of Sierra Leone.

Still others — old men, woman and children — were maimed, and not just by simply being in the way of the bombs and bullets that ripped and gouged the villages along the way.

Joseph Konio Kpsowa, who once studied at the former Salem College in Harrison County and WVU in Morgantown, was the headmaster of school there.

Once, on a rare trip outside of his village for a business matter, he returned to find his beloved school leveled by rebel fighting.

He was horrified when he regarded something else: A grim roll call of the above-mentioned villagers whose arms and hands had been severed — so they wouldn’t be able to shoulder a weapon for the cause.

Which is just what may have given his daughter, the Sarah Culberson, her sense of purpose.

Even if she wasn’t sure at the time, she told that audience.

Adopting purpose

The woman who grew up in Morgantown was still trying to process the fact that she was a genuine princess.

Culberson told her story as part of WVU’s inaugural “Week of Purpose” events, designed to give a mooring of meaning for young people trying to find their path in the world.

Events run through Saturday. Visit https://purpose.wvu.edu/ for more information and the complete schedule.

At the school in Morgantown, Joseph met a spirited white woman named Penny, a Bruceton Mills native who loved singing and acting.

The West African and the West Virginian began seeing one another.

When they found out they were going to be parents, both agreed they were too young to properly provide for a baby.

They worried about prevailing prejudgments of the time regarding biracial relationships — but they also agreed their daughter deserved a good home.

Sarah would be adopted as a toddler by Jim Culberson, who was a physician and professor at WVU’s School of Medicine, and his wife, Judy, a teacher in Monongalia County’s school district.

A daughter knew she was loved, but a deeper longing was still there, as it is in most children who are adopted.

As Culberson got older, she wanted to learn everything she could about her birth parents. Sadly, in 2003, while pursuing an acting career in Los Angeles, she found out that Penny had died from cancer some years before.

Joseph, meanwhile, was back in Sierra Leone, tending to his school and his royal duties. The Kpsowa family is a ruling one of the Mende tribe, in the country’s southern province.

Only his daughter didn’t know that at the time.

A $25 retaining fee to a private investigator led to a phone call from Maryland:” “I’m your auntie!” a woman with a lilting accent exclaimed over the phone. “I was there when you were born!”

Other phone calls were made, and answered, and soon, Culberson was standing at a gate in a dusty airport in Sierra Leone.

She and her birth father had a long embrace and both apologized to one another: She was sorry for misjudging him over the years, she said.

And he was sorry for simply leaving his daughter in the States.

A trip down a pothole riddled, red clay road to Joseph’s home village of Bumpe — sounds like, “Boom-PAY,” was a revelation.

‘I couldn’t pretend I didn’t see that’

The kid from West Virginia was a princess. Fifty women from the village — or maybe 100, Culberson told her rapt audience — came out to meet her.

All were wearing the same green patterned dress as she, and all singing a song in the local dialect which translated to, “We prepare for Sarah.”

Princess Sarah.

The title came with the family.

After the celebration came the reality. The country was still staggering from the war.

Crumbling infrastructure.

No infrastructure.

As a young American woman, Culberson had more money in her purse than most villagers made in a year, and she was a struggling actress.

Still, she wondered: Could she help, as a royal in a ravaged country?

Today, with her Culberson family and  Kpsowa family, she helped found Sierra Leone Rising, a nonprofit that helps build schools and technology networks, while providing medical services and feminine hygiene products for young women.

A memoir followed, which was optioned for an upcoming Disney feature film.

Her purpose was handed to her, she said, going back to those aforementioned fundamental ways, but she found it, too — by listening and trusting her instincts and heart, also.

It’s easy to do, she said, if you let yourself look and listen.

“I couldn’t go back to Los Angeles and pretend I didn’t see that,” she said.