Get to Know Jessica Nabongo, the First Documented Black Woman to Travel to Every Country in the World
Jessica Nabongo may have been born and raised in Detroit, Michigan, but she makes one thing clear: “The world is our neighborhood.” She told Travel + Leisure, “For me, home is in people. You can find home in many different places, even if it’s your first time visiting.”
As the first documented Black woman to visit every country in the world, home has meant a cattle camp in South Sudan, a hot air balloon in Myanmar, a barbershop run by a Congolese refugee in Malawi, a yurt in Kyrgyzstan, and yes, even North Korea.
But a curiosity about the world and the people in it coursed through the Ugandan-American long before her two-and-a-half-year global odyssey began in 2017. “Travel is fundamentally a part of who I am,” said Nabongo, who started traveling internationally at the age of four with her parents to destinations like Jamaica, Mexico, Uganda, London, and Canada. By the time she finished high school, Nabongo had visited eight countries — and she was only getting started.
The self-proclaimed “geography nerd” spent the following years crisscrossing the map, first quitting her corporate job to teach English in Japan, then studying abroad at the London School of Economics, followed by living in Benin, West Africa, and Rome, while working at the United Nations. All in all, she’s lived in five countries on four continents, and by the time her epic expedition around the world commenced, she already had 60 countries under her belt. Constantly on the move, it’s no wonder, then, that her motto (and moniker for her blog) is The Catch Me If You Can.
While Nabongo travels with friends and family, she has, of course, done her fair share of solo travel, too. Traversing the world alone has its obvious benefits — the shots are yours to call, the risks yours to take, the misadventures yours to overcome, and the triumphs yours to revel in — but for Nabongo, traveling solo has also been a way to foster a more profound connection with the places she’s visiting. “The benefit of solo travel is that it allows you the opportunity to connect with local people better,” she said. “When we travel with others, we’re there with those people, so oftentimes, we don’t get to know the local people. Solo travel allows you, in many ways, to explore a country deeper in terms of building those relationships and spending more time engaging with locals.”
And as a solo female Black traveler, specifically, Nabongo sees herself as an ambassador. “I’m Black, I’ve always been Black, I’ll always be Black. I can only move through the world as a Black person…what it means oftentimes, for better or worse, is that you become a representative for the people that people identify you as,” she said. “For the most part, people identify me as African – I’m not often identified as a Black American. It presents an opportunity to give people in different places an experience, and to work to normalize our existence beyond entertainment, beyond what they see on the news. It offers a chance to give people a real-life experience and hopefully help them realize, as I have, that we’re more similar than we are different.”
In fact, breaking down barriers has been part of Nabongo’s mission well before she even set out on her around-the-world journey. In 2015, she founded Jet Black, a boutique travel firm that works with governments and brands to promote tourism to countries in Africa, Central and South America, and the Caribbean. Upon launching, Nabongo tells us, the company’s first tagline was: "Changing the narrative."
“When it comes to Brown and Black countries, we most often see negativity, and that wasn’t my experience,” she said, listing Sudan, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Saudi as places where she had phenomenal experiences. “I remember prior to going to Russia and Saudi and Libya, people were like, ‘You have to be so careful. Russians hate Black people, Saudis hate Africans.’ All these different things, but I had really beautiful experiences in all of those countries.”
That’s not to say she hasn’t been confronted with challenges. “I got questioned a lot by immigration in different countries because they wouldn’t believe that as a Ugandan passport holder, I’m there for tourism,” said Nabongo, who switches between an American and Ugandan passport, depending on where she’s traveling.
Nabongo recalls another encounter in a rural part of Kyrgyzstan, when she noticed all of the cars on the road had stopped to stare at her as she was crossing the street to get a SIM card with a local. “I was like, ‘Oh yeah, duh, I’m Black and they’ve probably never seen a Black person here,’” she said. “It’s not to say I forget that I’m Black…but it’s not something I’m constantly thinking about.”
But those hurdles — sometimes subtle, sometimes jarring — haven’t slowed her down. “I know a lot of Black people ask, ‘Which countries are safe for Black people?’ I don’t really look at travel like that. I don’t ever Google ‘What is it like for Black people in X country because, to me, I belong anywhere that I am,” she said.
Acknowledging that people have different life experiences that may motivate their actions and apprehensions, Nabongo urges everyone to let go of fear. “I want everyone to feel like the world is there to be explored,” she said. “I want us to move away from fear, whether you’re a woman…or a non-white person. I want people to realize that the world is for all of us to explore.” It’s exactly this school of thought that she’s carried with her country to country, neighborhood to neighborhood.
And 195 countries later, the fearless traveler notes that most of her favorite experiences have been in lesser-visited, often-overlooked countries, because “the people themselves are way more excited to have tourists, and they’re also wanting to show people their country outside the negative things you see on the news.”
Among the underrated destinations that stand out most, Nabongo names Sudan, Namibia, northern Norway, Madagascar, and Tonga. “Sudan because they have more pyramids and older pyramids than Egypt. You also have the Red Sea, where you can go diving, and culturally, I find it to be very interesting,” she says. “And Namibia is a great country if you’re looking to do a lot of exploration by road. You have the Desert of Sossusvlei, the Skeleton Coast, you even have safaris.”
She goes on to talk about whale-watching, snowshoeing, and dog sledding in northern Norway, all the adventure travel opportunities — world-class beaches, rain forests, lemurs, and baobabs — in Madagascar, and even swimming with humpback whales in the wild in Tonga, a South Pacific destination that, according to her, doesn’t get the love it deserves. Talking to Nabongo feels akin to flipping through the pages of a travel magazine: it inspires, it informs, it leaves you feeling like you want to drop everything, pack a bag, and go.
Much like the rest of the world, however, Nabongo’s nomadic lifestyle has been paused amid the coronavirus pandemic. Though it should come as no surprise that she’s still inspiring others from home — she launched a geography course for adults and children in quarantine, providing folks with facts about different countries, and working on proper pronunciation. “So many people were wanting to travel, but also a lot of parents were trying to find new ways to entertain their kids, so it initially started as a class for children, but then so many adults were requesting it, too,” she says of the course, which has now wrapped, though it might make a comeback in the summer.
But once it’s safe to travel again, where does the woman who has seen it all want to go? Cuba, says Nabongo, without hesitation. “I first visited Cuba in 2016 for my birthday. I went with a bunch of friends, and fell in love with it,” she says. So much so, that in 18 months, she visited four times. “I love the people in Cuba, I love the energy...It’s such an amazing country. Obviously, it has a fascinating history, but the joie de vivre that the people there are living with is just so beautiful to witness and get a little bit of that into your life.”
This hearkens back to her belief that home lives in people, that everyone is her neighbor, no matter where she happens to be standing in the world.
Another major takeaway from her travels? “Most people are good. And we are more similar than we are different,” she says.
“What traveling shows you is no matter if you’re Muslim or Jewish, Black or White, male or female, we’re all just human beings. And in traveling and talking to people in rural areas in less economically developed countries, you really get that sense of ‘Oh, you’re just like me. Sure, we don’t speak the same language, but you’re just like me.’”
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