Detroit-born Jessica Nabongo is 47 countries and 10 months away from her goal of being one of the first black women to travel to every sovereign state in the world: all 195 of them.
At 34, Nabongo has worked for a pharmaceutical company in Detroit, an English academy in Japan, a non-profit in Benin, the United Nations in Italy, a consulting firm in DC and finally, for herself. She pioneered a travel company that promotes tourism to countries in Africa, Central and South America and the Caribbean in 2015. Then, in February 2017, with already 60 countries visited, Nabongo hit pause on her career and announced her expedition, taking on the role of instagram influencer and blogger while she travels.
The day before she flies to Saudi Arabia to kick off the next five weeks and six countries, Jessica Nabongo chats with Unearth Women about goals, human connection, small joys and combating burnout.
Unearth Women (UW): What inspired your mission?
Jessica Nabongo (JN): I am a geography nerd, I’ve always been interested in travel. My parents took me traveling from a young age, so it was something that was very much a part of my life. I always said that by my 40th birthday I’d travel to every country and then I heard about Cassie De Pecol, the American woman who claimed she was the first woman to travel to every country. I decided to pull my goal up to my 35th birthday. My birthday is in May, which is literally impossible to finish by, so my new deadline is October 6th, 2019. The reason I chose that date is because my father passed 15 years ago and I want to celebrate this occasion on his birthday as a way to include him in this journey.
At the end of the day, I could be doing this silently, I could be doing it slowly, but by saying “I want to be [one of] the first black women to travel to every country,” I know that comes with some press and by doing that it gives me a platform. The work that I’ve done now is way more impactful than the work I’ve done for the United Nations. I’m bringing attention to countries that people have literally never heard of. When I put up online that I’m traveling to Somaliland people were like, “oh did Somalia change their name?” and I get to not only explain to them that it has been an autonomous region for 30 years, but I also get to take them there with me to experience it through my eyes. By doing something so large, I hope to inspire others and say, “if I can make a decision to live my dreams out loud and achieve such a huge feat then so can you.”
UW: What are some of the challenges you’ve faced during your travels so far?
JN: I think the biggest thing is stereotyping. We are all treated on an individual’s view of a number of things: how we look, how we speak, how we dress. For me, I am a visibly African woman who clearly has a western accent. In the US, our default opinion of black is poor, it seems to me. There was an incident where I was boarding a first-class flight from the US and they told me to go to the back of the line. A lot of the discrimination on the US side is based in a lack of acceptance of my privilege. Outside, the focus is on me being an African, which means I could not possibly be a tourist in many places.
As a dual passport holder, sometimes I use my Ugandan passport. I use whatever one is most advantageous. If they’re both free visas on arrival, I’ll default to my Ugandan passport to show immigration that an African is traveling to their country for tourism. I get flagged because I’m African, and that doesn’t sit well with immigration, no matter which passport I am holding. I’ve had an agent in Amsterdam ask me if I had a green card while holding my American passport.
I feel like the universe granted me this opportunity and this life because I can handle it. Not everyone could, but I’m not afraid to stick up for myself when I’m being discriminated against and say “this is discrimination,” even when it makes me so angry that I am brought to tears.
UW: How do you connect with local culture when in a new country?
JN: I just try to connect with local people and let them guide me. Now thanks to Instagram, I always just put up a post and say ‘hey, I’m going to this country can you connect me.’ I was in Papua New Guinea with a friend and we were trying to go on this tour to the highlands, but we couldn’t find a reasonably priced tour. There were just several companies run by foreigners charging over $1,500 for short trips. A woman that followed me on Instagram reached out and said, “my mother lives in Goroka, you can meet up with her.” This woman’s mother picked us up from the airport and took us around and cooked us food. The same thing happened in Beirut, a follower connected me to her cousin, who picked me up three days in a row and drove me around not just the city, the country, and wouldn’t accept any money or even let me buy her a coffee. People are just so excited to see tourists in their country and want to show you the best of it. I don’t really have a lot of time to do research beforehand, I just go find the locals.
UW: What has been something you’ve learned during your travels?
JN: Man, we all just want the same thing. We all want to make sure our families are healthy, we all just want to spend time with the people that we love. We are all just human beings and we function the same way. Nobody is so lazy that they just live in poverty for no reason. We vilify the poor, but it’s not their own fault, poverty is the result of our global capitalist system. For capitalism to thrive there must be haves and have nots, their must be people that are being taken advantage of to maximize profit. No matter the level of financial excess of some people, we do not like so-called handouts. Capitalism does not want people to exist on a level playing field.
One project that I’ve recently started is asking locals “what makes you happy, have you ever been in love and what does that feel like,” and what I think I’ll find by the end of it is that what makes someone living in Prospect Park in New York happy will be the same as what makes a person in Cairo happy.
UW: Can you share some of your favorite moments of joy, connection, and bliss?
JN: For me, it’s about really seeing humanity. I mean yeah, I went dog sledding in Norway and that was dope, but the bigger part for me is the human story. I was in Sudan last year with some Sudanese friends and one of them hired his cousin to drive us around while we were in town. We were driving through Khartoum and there were children selling things on the side of the road. We stop at the light and he’s telling the little boy he will give him money if he goes to school, but before he gave him the money he made him practice his alphabet. He wanted to get the boy off the street and into school so he shared what little money he had.
When I was in Jordan on a tour, they paired me with one of the first female tour guides in the country named Maha. We were together for five days and on my way to the airport I stopped at her house to say goodbye, and she gave me a dress from her closet. Now when I go back to Jordan, I’m not going back as a tourist, I’m going to see friends and people I consider as family.
UW: When headed to war-torn countries, what precautions do you take?
JN: Here’s the thing: there is no country in the entire world that is completely dangerous. It does not exist. So all I have to do is find the safe place in the country, and go there. I don’t allow western accounts of what’s going on in a country to color my perception. I also know and trust the tour operators and individual people that I am meeting when I arrive in the country. I never go into any country feeling like something bad is going to happen to me. I move with positive energy throughout the world and it works as my protective shield. The only place that I’ve almost been a victim of a crime is Paris, where my phone almost got stolen.
UW: How do you navigate the balance of being present and experiencing the country you’re in while documenting it for social media?
JN: What I’ve decided is that while yes, so much of this is about showing it to other people and documenting what I’m seeing, ultimately I need to prioritize myself. I’m not a huge fan of obligations anyway, and I am primary. If I don’t get that bomb picture somewhere, I don’t just put up a mediocre photo. I just don’t post. I was just in Johannesburg for Global Citizen and ended up at Beyonce and Jay Z’s private afterparty and I have no photographic evidence because I was busy enjoying myself.
UW: How do you keep from burning out during your mission to travel to every country?
JN: My self-care routine is to listen to my body. I’m taking off eight days in January and going to Calgary in the mountains and I’m going to rest. I’m going to be putting an out-of-office notice on my email. We have to get out of this sense of needing to respond right away. Doing this, I’m very aware of the important things in life and responding to an email is very low on my totem pole. I really do listen to my heart and my body and I allow that to guide me because that’s the only thing I have to guide me.
I have to check myself sometimes like ‘Jessica, you are doing fine.’ I look left and look right and I don’t have anyone to look to, I am literally the first black woman to be doing this. When I remind myself of that, I’m know I’m good. That’s something we should all remember, we are all individuals on our own path and it doesn’t serve us to compare ourselves to others.
UW: Have you faced challenges as a female traveler?
JN: I think men don’t understand that they are predators. As a woman, I am constantly aware of my safety. For example, I was in Senegal and I had hired a driver who had been with me for two weeks. On one of the last days, this man said to me, “would you like to have an Easter orgy with me and my friends?” This was a man that I trusted. That’s just something men will never have to deal with.
The only thing that often keeps men from bothering me is if I say I have a boyfriend or husband. In a lot of places women will say that to rebuff people and I probably should, too, but I’m always trying to fight that. Why should I have to lie? I should be able to be a woman traveling solo without inviting male harassment.
UW: Which countries do you hope to re-visit after your expedition?
JN: Jordan, Cuba, Turkey, Egypt, Namibia, Tanzania, Japan, Comoros. Jordan because of the people; Jordanian hospitality, the food, and the landscapes. I’m really looking forward to do slow travel which is what I used to do before this. They have vineyards in Jordan, so I could just relax there for a few days.
UW: What’s next for you?
JN: There are so many things in the works. I’m trying to get the financial backing to do a documentary. I also want to do podcasting. The biggest thing that I want to do is use what I’ve learned through life to teach others. I have a book in the works. It’s about the lessons that I’ve learned that I think are key to creating the life that you want to live and getting on the other side of fear.