A Detroit Native on Becoming the First Black Woman to Visit Every Country

Travel influencer Jessica Nabongo has explored more than 160 locations // Photographs provided by Jessica Nabongo
Jessica Nabongo
Antigua in January 2018.

When Detroit-born Jessica Nabongo made it her mission to become the first black woman to visit every country in the world, her natural penchant for travel, coupled with a curiosity about other cultures, had already taken her across the globe. By February 2017, she had been to 60 countries and had lived in five  — the United States, Japan, and Italy to name a few. Embarking on a journey to the remaining 135 before she turned 35 seemed like a natural next step.

A citizen of both the U.S. and Uganda, the latter is where both of her parents are from, she’s used her Ugandan passport to enter countries like North Korea, where she watched the North Korean Mass Games in Pyongyang this past fall. On a short stop home between travels from Trinidad and Tobago and Myanmar, Nabongo chatted with Hour Detroit about what she’s learned, and what she hopes others will learn, from her voyage across the world.

Jessica Nabongo
Nairobi, Kenya in May 2017. // Photograph by Brian Siambi

Hour Detroit: You’ve had a mix of living and traveling abroad. How do you compare the two experiences?

Jessica Nabongo: Obviously, they’re very different experiences. And there are negatives and positives to both. What I try to do when I visit a country is a deep dive. Even if I’m there for 48 hours, I link up with a local person and have them take me around. I ask a lot of questions and really just try to understand and learn about a country from the perspective of a local. A lot of the time, I don’t have a list of things to do. I’m like, “Look, I’m in your country — show me what I need to see! Tell me about your country.” 

Now when you live in a place, it’s a totally different experience. Every time I’ve lived in a different country, I’ve had a full-time job. So yes, you’re exploring, but you’re living your regular life. I lived in Rome the longest and I wasn’t always trying a new place. I had my spot, and I went there pretty often because it’s less about exploring and more about finding comfort. 

As an influencer, do you feel like you have a role in that conversation that’s playing out on social media of traveling responsibly and not going to a country just for the sake of it? 

I think it’s really important to ask yourself why. Why are you traveling? You have to answer that question before you can decide what makes sense. I think we are living in an interesting time in that a lot of people are just traveling to get a picture for the ’gram. We are sharing our lives on Instagram, but people are doing it for very different reasons. For me, I want to normalize humanity. I want to get everyone out of this idea of, “I can’t relate to you because you’re black.” I’m trying to show that humans are just humans no matter what language they’re speaking, no matter what countries they live in. 

Jessica Nabongo
China at the Great Wall in October 2018.

“For me, I want to normalize humanity. I want to get everyone out of this idea of,
‘I can’t relate to you because you’re black.’ ”
— Jessica Nabongo

Jessica Nabongo
Sudan, at the Nubian Pyramids in December 2017.

That’s empowering. What is it that motivates you to spread that message?

I’m Ugandan, and as an African, a lot people have negative things to say about my country and my continent. I try to do a good job of showcasing every place I visit in a positive light. [Likewise], there’s this idea among African-American people that Eastern Europe is just no place that’s safe for black people to go as travelers. But I haven’t really had an issue. I love Ukraine — people were super nice and very helpful — Macedonia, Bosnia, Croatia, Montenegro. Serbia was lit. The fact of the matter is, in every country in the world, people are living their regular lives. People are making sure their kids are getting to school. People are still going to work and trying to provide for their families. They’re sitting down with their friends. They’re laughing. Those are the stories I want to tell. 

Jessica Nabongo
Goree Island (left): On the coast of Dakar, Senegal in April 2018. Bali (right): At the Tegalalang Rice Terrace in Bali, Indonesia in February 2017.

At press time, Nabongo has visited 161 of 195 countries. She anticipates reaching her goal of becoming the first black woman to see every country in the world later this year. Follow Nabongo’s travels on Instagram @thecatchmeifyoucan.