She's blazing a trail for black female travelers

Jessica Nabongo shares her experiences trying to become the first black woman to visit every country on earth.

Posted: Apr 27, 2018 10:15 AM
Updated: Apr 27, 2018 10:29 AM

Some people set records by jumping the highest or running the fastest.

But for Jessica Nabongo, a UN employee turned travel blogger, becoming the first black woman to visit every country on Earth isn't just about getting her name in a record book -- it's about paving the way for women and people of color to do the same.

Nabongo was born in Detroit to Ugandan parents and holds two passports.

Although she felt like she'd achieved "the American dream" by landing a six-figure job at a pharmaceutical company after college and buying her own place in the Motor City, the work didn't satisfy her.

She began renting out her condo to make money, then hit the road -- first, teaching English in Japan, then grad school at the London School of Economics, followed by a job at the United Nations that took her to Benin and then Italy. But that wasn't enough to sate the travel bug.

But simply being able to afford a ticket doesn't mean that travel is easy or seamless.

Nabongo's experiences traveling the world undercut many of the exhortations travel brands have to "live like a local," being able to seamlessly blend in anywhere simply by changing clothes or ordering coffee a certain way.

Often, as the only person of color in a crowd, she stood out whether she wanted to or not. Nabongo also has dark skin and shaves her head.

To date, there are about 150 known people who have been to every country, the majority of whom are white men traveling on European passports -- the ones who have the option to "blend in" in more places.

As of April 2018, there were 193 recognized countries in the United Nations, plus two with "non-observer status."

Since she began her project in earnest in 2016, Nabongo has been to 109 of them. Her goal is to reach 172 by the end of 2018, and the remaining countries by summer 2019.

North Korea and Iran, which often prove challenging for US travelers, are two where she plans to use her Ugandan passport. So far, her passports have stamps from places as far-flung as Nigeria, Cuba, Turkey and Laos.

Nabongo supports her travel habit a few ways. She founded a company called Jet Black, which organizes custom itineraries for small group trips in Africa, plus sells travel gear like branded T-shirts and passport covers.

As an influencer, she works with hotel and hospitality brands, some of whom offer up free stays in exchange for social media posts. She also accepts donations on a GoFundMe page.

"Navigating the world as a woman can be very difficult," Nabongo told CNN Travel. "I've had a pretty wide range of experiences. I've been accused of being a prostitute. I've had men chase me before. I've been assaulted on the street."

In one particularly horrible incident, a driver/fixer Nabongo had been working with and had grown to trust invited her to an "Easter orgy" just before he was due to pick her up to go to the airport. "That is something a man will never have to deal with."

An American African in Africa

And despite being a self-identified African, that didn't mean everything was smooth sailing when Nabongo traveled around Africa.

A few times, she watched in frustration as she was forced to wait behind white tourists or forced to pay bribes in order to cross borders that should have been open to her.

"The discrimination that I faced in South Africa was ridiculous. Not only from white South Africans, which many would expect, but also from black South Africans," she says.

However, some countries were better than others: "Senegal, it's amazing. You don't see them privileging white people over Africans. They treat everyone the same. Same in Ghana."

Adding to the challenge of seeing the world is the fact that Nabongo often travels solo. She generally eschews Airbnbs for hotels, where she can count on a 24-hour front desk to keep her feeling secure. She prefers to bring friends along to share the experience when possible.

The unelected ambassador

Sometimes, though, the tables turn and Nabongo finds herself abroad speaking on behalf of Americans. This is particularly likely in countries that have warned their citizens against traveling to the United States or have concerns about gun violence.

"While I've been abroad, I've had people ask me about how safe is the US, especially for people of color," Nabongo says.

"And you know, I have to tell them, 'Yes, there is a high risk for you in particular in urban areas. But then also in rural areas because you're a minority.' It's a very strange and difficult thing to navigate."

Still, comments and questions like those only emphasize the importance of Nabongo's work.

While she does not identify as an activist, sometimes her mere presence is enough to make a difference or cause a person to see things differently. This is a common sentiment echoed by many women of color: Simply being who you are is a statement.

Whether counseling a person of color who's afraid to travel or a local who thinks it's okay to try and touch her head without asking, Nabongo serves a cultural ambassador role that may not be visible behind those colorful shots she posts on Instagram.

Speaking of Instagram, Nabongo has some words of caution for travelers who use African people as objects, props or backdrops in their photos, something she encounters way too often online.

"Instagram is great. I love it. It's obviously given me a platform so that I can educate people about different places in the world," she says.

"But it's also a very dangerous and disgusting place as well because a lot of people want a bigger following. They want the likes. They want pictures that go viral. So they're willing to use anybody and anything."

"We cannot negate the optics of whiteness in Africa. We can't," she says.

Ultimately, Nabongo's quest isn't just about crossing countries off a list.

It's about changing the perception of female travelers, of travelers of color and of anyone who doesn't have the option of passing for a local in a given community.

"Racism is a thing. There's nothing we can do to get around that. History has made it that way. I exist as a black person in this world and I'm not going to let that hinder me from going anywhere I want to go. Namely, everywhere."

Minnesota Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 554536

Reported Deaths: 7083
CountyCasesDeaths
Hennepin1155051679
Ramsey47786853
Dakota42410422
Anoka38477415
Washington24913273
Stearns20994218
St. Louis16774297
Scott15946117
Wright14764127
Olmsted1273297
Sherburne1060080
Carver980145
Clay781289
Rice7632101
Blue Earth695840
Kandiyohi627380
Crow Wing615086
Chisago548250
Otter Tail542673
Benton530597
Mower450532
Goodhue442471
Douglas441870
Winona438149
Nobles400248
Morrison394659
McLeod394355
Isanti375159
Beltrami372257
Itasca370752
Polk365367
Steele361914
Becker353948
Lyon347848
Carlton329352
Freeborn326829
Pine311821
Nicollet306542
Brown294439
Mille Lacs281250
Le Sueur269722
Todd268730
Cass249626
Meeker235937
Waseca231221
Martin212529
Wabasha19953
Roseau197318
Renville172043
Hubbard171841
Dodge17123
Redwood166435
Houston162614
Cottonwood156821
Fillmore15169
Pennington150619
Chippewa145836
Wadena144021
Faribault143419
Sibley135710
Kanabec130621
Aitkin128636
Watonwan12549
Rock122719
Jackson117310
Yellow Medicine110419
Pipestone109725
Murray10229
Pope10226
Swift99518
Marshall85617
Stevens82010
Lake78419
Clearwater77414
Koochiching76913
Wilkin76812
Lac qui Parle73522
Big Stone5644
Lincoln5592
Grant5478
Norman5229
Mahnomen5048
Unassigned49578
Kittson46622
Red Lake3877
Traverse3595
Lake of the Woods3053
Cook1450

Iowa Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 357796

Reported Deaths: 5821
CountyCasesDeaths
Polk55970604
Linn20297330
Scott19082234
Black Hawk15550306
Woodbury14897221
Johnson1404281
Dubuque13153202
Dallas1089196
Pottawattamie10747162
Story1031147
Warren555186
Clinton537390
Cerro Gordo521986
Webster508291
Sioux506073
Marshall477174
Muscatine459896
Des Moines441465
Wapello4253120
Buena Vista421740
Jasper407670
Plymouth397079
Lee368155
Marion354575
Jones293055
Henry286137
Bremer279260
Carroll279151
Crawford262040
Boone258533
Benton250355
Washington249550
Dickinson242043
Mahaska224850
Jackson217942
Kossuth212663
Clay211025
Tama206671
Delaware202839
Winneshiek194433
Page190321
Buchanan188831
Cedar183823
Fayette182941
Wright180435
Hardin179942
Hamilton178049
Harrison176373
Clayton167055
Butler162534
Mills158620
Cherokee157138
Floyd155342
Lyon154741
Madison153919
Poweshiek152733
Allamakee149051
Iowa145524
Hancock143534
Winnebago136031
Grundy135232
Cass134354
Calhoun133211
Jefferson130635
Emmet128840
Shelby128337
Sac127219
Louisa126849
Appanoose126747
Mitchell125241
Union124032
Chickasaw122615
Humboldt118326
Guthrie117929
Franklin112721
Palo Alto110922
Howard102822
Montgomery100637
Unassigned10030
Clarke98223
Keokuk94530
Monroe94128
Ida89633
Adair84532
Pocahontas83621
Monona81230
Davis79924
Greene76710
Osceola75516
Lucas74923
Worth7078
Taylor65212
Fremont6139
Decatur5899
Van Buren55518
Ringgold53623
Wayne52123
Audubon4949
Adams3284
Rochester/St. Mary'S
Cloudy
61° wxIcon
Hi: 64° Lo: 32°
Feels Like: 61°
Mason City
Cloudy
62° wxIcon
Hi: 64° Lo: 34°
Feels Like: 62°
Albert Lea
Cloudy
61° wxIcon
Hi: 63° Lo: 34°
Feels Like: 61°
Austin
Cloudy
61° wxIcon
Hi: 63° Lo: 32°
Feels Like: 61°
Charles City
Cloudy
61° wxIcon
Hi: 63° Lo: 36°
Feels Like: 61°
Tracking an arctic front, cooling us down for the workweek
KIMT Radar
KIMT Eye in the sky

Latest Video

Image

Sara's Saturday Night Forecast

Image

April Tool's Day

Image

Byron baseball starts season strong

Image

Hayfield BB PKG

Image

Minnesota DNR offering virtual firearm safety classes for youth

Image

Aaron's Saturday Forecast (4/17/21)

Image

North Broadway Avenue project begins Monday

Image

Aaron's Evening Forecast (4/16/21)

Image

Mom hosting Prom

Image

Vaccines for manufacturing

Community Events