A Princess Found

An American Family, an African Chiefdom, and the Daughter Who Connected Them All

Sarah Culberson and Tracy Trivas

St. Martin's Press


Bumpe, Sierra Leone


Before the rebels attacked Joseph’s village, they first sent in child spies. That was the way it was done—boys, ages 10–14, pretended to be lost, refugees, or orphans, but they were child soldiers with nicknames like "Commander Cut Hands," "Crazy Jungle," or "Captain Bloodie." For simple scout missions, their adult commanders did not waste precious drugs on the children, hallucinogens which revved them into fearless and brutal machines. Only later in the afternoon, when the rebels ordered the child soldiers to kill did they carve slits into the boys’ young temples, pierce holes into their tender veins, and rub cocaine and "brown-brown" heroin into their raw wounds. Scotch tape slapped across the incisions pressed the drugs deeper into their bloodstreams.

The child spies penetrated Bumpe, Joseph’s village, at 1:30 P.M.,right before lunchtime, acting only like boys. First they asked a passing villager, an African woman with a tin bucket on her head, for water.

"Mama, gi me wata," they said in Krio, the common language melded from the centuries of contact between the colonial British, freed slaves, and Africans.

"Ya de wata,"she said, pouring water from her vessel.

"Tenki,"they said.

Spying Joseph’s well-used soccer ball in the yard, they even began a spontaneous game in the red dirt close to his home. A few boys wrestled. But soon the older boys trickled off, no longer soccer players but now morphed into moles, casing available supplies: sacks of rice, drums of water, mangoes, yams, dried fish, palm oil, and cassava leaves ready to be plucked from backyard patches. Next the population needed to be assessed: How many women? How many young girls ripe for sexual slavery—their ebony legs to be roped together at the ankles and gang-raped? How many new child soldiers could be "adopted and drafted" with the help of machetes, AK-47s, handheld RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades), and G3 automatic rifles?

On December 31, 1994, Joseph Konia Kposowa, forty-one-years old, a member of a ruling Mende family and the son of a great Paramount Chief, traveled to the neighboring village of Taninahun with his two children, five-year-old Hindogbae, and ten-year-old, Jeneba, for a holiday visit with his mother, Musu.

Although his full Christian name was Joseph, everyone in his village called him Joe, which was most fitting as he was a powerful man, worthy of a swift, one syllable name. Although not tall in stature, his presence was unmistakable as a leader in his village. Everyone in Bumpe considered Joe a "big man," a term villagers spoke in hushed tones about important people. Joe ran the prestigious Bumpe High School and took in seven children, besides his own son and daughter, to support and send to school.

The civil war that ravaged the country had not yet touched Joe’s village or impacted his students. Although he and the village elders held meetings about the rebels, listening in silence around Joe’s portable radio for war updates, no one believed the rebels could be so close—not yet.

When Joe, in his Toyota Hilux truck, left his wife and in-laws behind to continue the simple rituals of everyday life—weaving country cloth, preparing a lunch of rice, okra, and maybe even peanut soup—he had no particular worries. It was a simple day, a day off from teaching at the boarding school where he was the principal, a day not consulting or advising his brother who was campaigning for the position of Paramount Chief. Only royal family members could run for Paramount Chief, a position his grandfather held and his father, Francis Kposowa, held for thirty years, governing thirty-six thousand people.

But it was that afternoon the rebels chose for the first attack.

Joe’s wife, Mary, busy working at home with her mother and younger sister, heard the heavy footsteps of men. A mass of soldiers marched forty feet from her window. Assuming the men were government soldiers, Mary dashed outside to thank them and offer them something to drink.

"Come to my house to drink water," she offered, beckoning with her hand.

The soldiers ignored her and kept on walking.

She returned to the house.

"Man’s work," she assumed.

"Moiyatu!" she called to her beautiful, doe-eyed thirteen-year-old sister. "Run and tell Reverend Morlai the good news. Army men have come to help!"

Moiyatu ran off to the Reverend Morlai’s house to deliver the message.

Minutes later two hundred rebels descended upon Bumpe. Joe’s pet monkey, Little, screeched a shrill alarm. Mary heard the popping gunfire and ghastly screams of the villagers and darted straight out the backdoor into the bush. She left everything behind, including a simmering pot of rice on the fire. She sprinted into the forests; her mother, Kadie, trailed behind her.

Only now, as Mary pushed deeper and deeper into the bush, begging her elderly mother to move faster, did she realize the men she believed to be government soldiers were rebels.

Mary prayed for thirteen-year-old Moiyatu.

Running side-by-side along a bush path, Mary and her mother tore through elephant grasses and overgrown weeds. Snarled vegetation flanked the maze of dirt tributaries that linked many villages. Together they traveled eight miles until they reached the village of Balahun where they split up. Mary’s mother refused to go any farther. Her feet, swollen and bruised from the sharp grasses needed rest. Mary kissed her mother good-bye. Until she reached her two children, Hindogbae and Jeneba, and her husband, she would not stop moving. Alone now with darkness falling, Mary continued the remaining seven miles to Taninahun. Blisters bubbled on her feet and splinters lodged under her toenails.

Breathless, shaking, unsteady from creeping low in the sun-beaten grasses, Mary reached Taninahun at midnight. Bursting through the door of Musu’s home, she collapsed into Joe’s arms. Covered in dust, sliced from the razor-edged weeds, Mary could not stop crying.

Back in Bumpe, two hundred rebels looted homes, probing for new "recruits" and young girls to add to their junta as "rebel wives." The fifteen miles between Joe’s family and the rebels left only a single night to make a decision—if even that much time remained. In Grandmother Musu’s dark mud-brick home, plastered with cement and roofed with sheets of zinc, Joseph huddled with Mary and Musu as the children slept.

Mary begged her husband to go back to the village of Balahun for her mother, Kadie. When the sun rose, he promised he would jump into his truck, drive back to Balahun, and search for Kadie. As for Mary’s younger sister, Moiyatu, there was nothing he could do. Driving to Bumpe under a rebel attack would be suicide. Joe stepped outside onto Musu’s front porch. In the deep African night, listening for gunfire, he swore he could smell Bumpe burning in the distance.

Everyone knew the rebels carried kerosene in gallon cans or even in glass Coca-Cola bottles. That night, in Bumpe, they doused random homes with kerosene. Matches were struck against the houses, which soon blazed in a rapid ring of flames. Burning thatch crackled off the roofs. Forty-seven homes burned to the ground that night.

Joe’s house was one of them.

Across the Atlantic, a lifetime away, Sarah Jane Culberson lay in her white canopy bed in West Virginia, staring up at the metal slats in the frame. Like most people living in America, she did not know about the rebels and their atrocities. In 1994, when she was eighteen years old she did not know her father was fighting to live through the night. In fact, Sarah did not know her father.


Morgantown, West Virginia 1993–1994

Years ago, as a middle-school birthday present I received a mobile—a yellow satin moon with a bear sleeping on a cloud. Slowly it twirled above my head tied to the canopy frame. I never bothered to take it down. "Pleasant Dreams" was embroidered on the cloud. It seemed I should have been having sweet dreams; there would be no reason not to.

After all, it was homecoming weekend.

In Morgantown, a community of around thirty thousand people, homecoming was a town celebration. Parents bundled their children in bulky wool sweaters, twisted on knit scarves, and filled thermoses with hot chocolate—necessary endurance against the falling thirty-degree temperature. The vans, cars, and pickup trucks pulled into the parking lot behind the huge football stadium, and cars lined the neighboring streets as families raced toward the stands.

During University High’s big game against Liberty High School, I shuffled into the high school football stadium with the ten other senior girls who had been elected to the homecoming court. Escorted to center field during half-time, decked in velvet and brocade skirt-suits, one of us would be crowned queen. We all should have been wrapped in jackets that evening, but we braved the weather for the ceremony, our outfits too pretty to cover.

With the cold blasting through our flimsy panty hose, gusts threatening to teeter us from the points of our high heels, we shivered. I was supposed to be wearing my leg brace, having shredded my knee in a varsity basketball scrimmage two months earlier, ripping my ligament in half, but my doctor gave me permission to take it off only for the ceremony.

Finally the band stopped playing. The principal stepped up to the microphone. "The second runner-up is . . . ," "The first runner-up is . . . ," boomed the loudspeaker, "and the new Homecoming Queen is . . . Sarah Culberson!"

My mouth hung open.

The flashbulbs exploded, hundreds of lights blinking from the stands. Friends and family waved, stamping the bleachers; a photographer from the local newspaper, The Dominion Post, bolted onto the field to take pictures.

With a giant bouquet placed in my hands, I hobbled off the field. My white, adoptive parents, Jim and Judy Culberson, rushed to congratulate me with hugs and kisses. Little girls in miniature homecoming dresses slid up to me wanting to have a photograph taken with me. Shocked that I had won instead of the girl who had been expected to win, I smiled at my friends, neighbors, and basketball teammates. Maybe all those years of reaching out and being friendly to my classmates counted for something.

I always made an effort to be kind to everybody because I knew how bad it felt when people were insensitive. Through the applause I scanned the bleachers, waving at my teachers, waving at my classmates, even waving at the woman who refused to let her son go out with me because I was half black. A girl with an unknown black father, a girl with an unknown white mother, adopted by a lovely, respected white family, but still.

In elementary school, I played house with some of my white friends at recess. Ellie wanted to be the mom; Hannah, the sister; Liz, the baby.

"I’ll be Hannah’s twin sister!" I said.

"No," they all replied in unison, "you can’t."

"Why?" I asked confused.

"You don’t match."

"Oh," I said and stopped playing.

In eighth grade, a friend of mine pushed me in front of a boy and said, "Hey, Greg, what did you say about voting for Sarah? Why wouldn’t you vote for her?" Greg, stone-faced, refused to repeat to my face what he said to his friends: "I’m not voting for a black girl for student council president." Thankfully most of the rest of my class was color-blind. But in spite of the majority of friends, family, and community members who accepted me, color kept coming up.

Even as a one-year-old, the day I left foster care and arrived at my new home, a neighborhood child asked my older sister: "Is she black or does she just have a really good tan?"

Instead of black or white I felt like the brown girl who didn’t match. But, I did everything I could to blend in and look like everyone else. My hairdresser spent hours trying to tame my Afro by slopping heavy, thick goops of cream onto my hair to straighten it. If she waited too long to wash the cream out, my scalp would burn. But when she finished, I had straight flowing hair—just like my older sisters and all my other friends. To me, my kinky hair was shameful and ugly.

Most of the time in my classes, I was the only non–white student. Never wanting to disappoint my adopted family, I somehow came to the conclusion that I must be the representative of all biracial and black people in my predominately white town.

Somewhere in another back pocket of memory, or still tingling in my cells from foster care, I knew how good I had it with my adopted family. Whatever happened, I wanted to be good enough so that the Culbersons with their two, older, biological daughters, would never send me back. Make them proud. Prove on the basketball court, on the stage, that I was worth adopting.

When I shared this with my mom, she laughed, hugged me, and said, "Honey, where is back?"

I buried myself in her arms and said, "I don’t know. But I don’t want to go there."

Adopted two days after my first birthday, it might seem strange this fear of going back. How can a one-year-old remember anything, much less the memories of an infant before her first birthday? And maybe children don’t remember things, only feelings—a sensation of safety, or one of dread and abandonment.

I was convinced that people would judge the entire black race and every biracial child based on my behavior. I vowed to be unfailingly excellent and unfailingly likeable. Despite being elected junior class and student body president, I wasn’t unfailingly likeable.

Sophomore year, one of the few black students at my high school spewed to my friends, "Sarah doesn’t even know if she’s black or white."

My anger at his comment only confirmed he was right. I didn’t know.

Excerpted from A Princess Found by Sarah Culberson and Tracy Trivas.
Copyright 2009 by Sarah Culberson and Tracy Trivas.
Published in July 2009 by St. Martin’s Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.