Documentary: West Virginia Princess

It's something that every little girl fantasizes about ... that the phone will ring and the voice on the other end of the line will tell her she's not the lonely, gawky girl that she thought she was. No, she is, in fact, a princess.

And that's exactly what happened to Sarah Culberson. At the age of 28, Culberson--who had been adopted by a family in West Virginia when she was a baby--hired a private investigator to find her biological father. (Her mother, she had been informed a few years earlier, had died of breast cancer.) The news the investigator yielded was surprising: her father was a member of the ruling family of the Mende tribe in the Southern Province of Sierra Leone. She was, by birthright, a princess. "I just about fell off my seat," says Culberson. "I mean, a princess . To be totally honest, it was really cool."

But she quickly discovered it wasn't all diamonds, castles and princes. When she arrived in her father's village, Bumpe (accompanied by a filmmaker friend), she found that the place had been nearly decimated by the country's 11-year civil war. One of her aunts had been killed by rebels; another bore scars from being slashed in the neck with a machete. Most people lived in poverty and the village's school, where her father was headmaster, was in danger of closing.

When she returned to the States, Culberson established a foundation to raise funds to save her dad's school; her goal is to have it completely rebuilt by fall 2007. Her friend has turned her quest into a feature-length documentary, "Bumpenya," which is still in production and which Culberson hopes will raise awareness for her cause. "My life and my priorities have completely changed," says Culberson. "I don't get upset at silly things anymore. My purpose now is to rebuild the school and bring peace to the people of Sierra Leone." Or, in other words, to let them all live happily ever after.

Elise Soukup