Interview with Jessica Nabongo

 

 

INCREDIBLE WOMEN TRAVELLERS SERIES

It is quite unfortunate that almost 90% of UN Masters have a similar profile: male and Caucasian. Jessica, helped by her two passports, breaks these stereotypes and is on her way to not only becoming - to the best of our knowledge - the first woman to visit every country but also the first person with 100% black African heritage to do so.

Jessica, tell us something about your early years and how your love of travel developed.

I was born in Detroit, Michigan to Ugandan immigrants. From a young age I traveled with my family. When I was four I went to Canada for the first time and visited Canada's Wonderland near Toronto. When I was six I went to Uganda for the first time, stopping in London to visit family there. Throughout my childhood my parents took me to various places, whether it was road trips in the US or summer vacations in the Caribbean, they made it clear that the world was meant to be explored. I am also a geography nerd and former development worker so I've always been fascinated by geography and geopolitics. 
 
Traveling to every country in the world has really given me a first-hand look into geopolitics. Did you know you cannot rent a car in Bulgaria and drive to North Macedonia?? We had to take a taxi from Sofia to Skopje then rent a car in Skopje to finish our road trip. Also getting from India to Pakistan is a headache! Traveling on both a Ugandan and US passport has proven helpful to navigate around visa barriers. Out of 195 countries I only had to apply for visas in 17 embassies!! The rest were either visa on arrival or visa free!

Market in Mali.

What type of traveller do your consider yourself?

Since I started my mission to visit every country in the world, my travel style has definitely changed. There's been a lot more solo travel and much shorter journeys and A LOT of plane travel. I definitely am more of a luxury traveler than backpacker. I have actually never owned a backpack and only stayed in hostels a handful of times. Once I finish visiting every country in the world I am excited to go back to longer stays in countries and circling back to places that I want to explore more deeply. I also look forward to more road trips in different countries and traveling with friends again!

Bhutan
You are attempting to become the first black woman to do every country in the world. Why did you choose this goal?

I think that that the travel space is largely dominated by western white men, and me doing this very public journey increases representation for black people in this space. When I look at ads in travel magazines or digital ads I rarely see people that look like me. I hope that my journey can show people that look like me and others that the world is meant to be explored by everyone, not just one particular type of traveler.  I also have made it a point to use my Ugandan passport as often as possible where it doesn't require an embassy visit so that immigration around the world can see an African passport holder traveling for tourism. I have had some pretty crappy experience with immigration on both my US and Ugandan passports because many times people don't believe that i am just traveling for tourism. Many immigration officers around the world are not used to seeing someone like me traveling for leisure. 

I also think for women travelers that my journey is proving that the world is not as scary as they want us to think it is!!

Pakistan.
And why do you think women (only about 20 have visited all countries) and blacks are lagging so far behind from the stereotype of white males who are doing every country in the world (a total of 200 travellers, a handful of who are Asian)?

This is such a great question!!! I largely think that it has to do with a lack of representation and historical and injustice. Many of the men that completed the feat did significant parts of it solo. There is still an outdated narrative that solo travel for women can be dangerous, in particular when traveling off the beaten path, and I cannot debunk this enough! I have traveled to nearly 80 countries solo and I've not felt unsafe in any of them. The places I've felt the least safe while traveling are the United States and Paris. That's why I love that this platform shines a light on so many female explorers so that women see it is possible and safe to explore the world on your own terms. 
 
With regard to black people, for centuries, the movement of black people has been severely limited by white supremacy. Whether you think about colonial times in Africa, South America and the Caribbean, or Jim Crow in the US, or apartheid South Africa we've seen laws that were put in place to limit our movements all over the world. Beyond that there is a severe economic disparity between black people and white people because of history. Couple this with a lack of representation and people feeling like certain things aren't for them and you have a lack of black people who have extensively traveled in modern time, as compared to their white counterparts. 
 
Don't get me wrong, African/black explorers have explored the world for centuries! We can look to Matthew Henson, or many black American entertainers who in the 40s, 50s, and 60s preferred traveling and living abroad to being in the US, and others that were breaking barriers years ago. I hope that my journey inspires more black people and people of color in general to explore more of the world.  

Libya
Are you very active on social media in terms of your travelling? Why or why not?

I am very active on social media, maybe too active. This journey has become so much bigger than me, so I have to check in from every country. I also love being able to share tidbits about every country that I visit. I always wanted to be a geography teacher and this is my little way of doing that. Plus it allows me to share images and videos from places that many people have never heard of or have negative ideas about and shift their perception of these countries.

Have you met many other travellers on your travels? What similarities and what differences have you found across the travel community?

I met a Greek guy in Libya (ed. note: Giannis Prodromidis, whom we interviewed in 2014 and who completed every country a few months ago) that was traveling to every country. I think he recently finished. I also met a guy from Colombia in Yemen who was finishing up every country. 
 
One thing that I have found from a lot of people in this particular travel community is that they do not really deeply explore African countries, in particular those off the beaten path and that makes me sad. I see a lot of people rushing to check it off the list or only hanging out with expats when they visit different African countries and that is really unfortunate. I am so passionate about leisure travel in Africa and I think that makes me quite unique in this space. 
 
With regard to similarities I think our geographical curiosity goes without say and it is pretty cool to be able to have a conversation with people about countries like Tuvalu or Turkmenistan and hear their take on places that most people in the world have never even heard of. 

Micronesia

 Of the countries you visited, which one surprised you most, positively and negatively?

I recently visited Tonga and absolutely loved it. I fell in love with the country and the people! Swimming with humpback whales was also pretty epic! Also North Korea! I spent six days there and it was nothing that I could've imagined. Aside from some quirky things, I thought it was surprisingly normal. We saw couples sitting in the park, we chatted with some college students, saw people drinking in a local bar, kids on school field trips and people going to work on the subway. We never really see pictures or "normal" life in North Korea so this was very surprising. 

Tonga

Tell us a couple of travel stories which have really stuck in your mind.

Sudan: I visited Sudan in December 2017. I was lucky enough to be visiting when some of my Sudanese friends from NYC were there and as a result I made lots of new friends. I loved exploring the markets of Khartoum. I stood out like a sore thumb because of my lack of hair and bright red lips; I was a spectacle in the market!!! My friend translated for me that many people, mostly women, were trying to figure out if I was a boy or girl (these debates happened quite frequently in Sao Tome as well!) We went to visit the pyramids which was probably the best experience I had while there. Sudan has more pyramids and older pyramids than Egypt but very few people actually visit them or even know that they exist. I was so shocked that all the ancient ruins that we visited in Sudan were just open with no one really monitoring who visits. I cannot wait to visit Sudan again. I am planning to visit this December for a wedding and hope to get to the Red Sea. 
 
Georgia: I LOVE LOVE LOVE Georgia. I think that Tbilisi is a really cool city with great hotels, restaurants and bars. Georgia is in my top ten for cuisine around the world and everyone was so nice. I loved going to the vineyards outside of the city. While driving to one we stopped on the side of the road for fresh bread and this woman in Georgia was making bread the exact same way that I saw a man making it in Yemen. This blew me away! What was even more amazing was that I was able to show her a video of the man in Yemen. This is why traveling to every country in the world is so amazing. You get to see so many similarities between countries and often times I am able to share these similarities. 
 
Central African Republic: I had never heard anything positive about CAR prior to visiting so while I was there i made it my mission to show positive images and video. I linked up with a local guy named Desire and we road around on a motorcycle taxi all day chatting with locals and taking pictures. It was sweltering when I visited in April 2019 and while in the market we rested to have a coffee (very big in CAR) and hide from the sun. Some men offered me a seat under an umbrella and we chatted about CAR and reducing the use of single use plastic, which I am very passionate about. I also met a man named Blaise who was 40 and when I met him, he had just walked 45km in 36C/96F temps while pushing this charcoal, and in 4 HOURS!! All to support his family. While there weren't any sites to see in the traditional aspect I really enjoyed my time in CAR chatting and shooting photos of local people. 

Do you believe it is easier or harder to travel alone being a woman? How do your experiences show this?

I definitely think it is harder to travel alone as a woman largely because of patriarchy. We have to navigate a lot of cultural differences and travel to places where it is unusual for women to be outspoken, let alone traveling solo. As far as safety I think we have to be much more aware of where we go, how we dress and how we carry ourselves. We also have to field a lot of unwanted advances from men. While traveling in Senegal, a driver that I had been working with for ten days asked me if I wanted to join him and his friends for an Easter orgy before my flight! Those were his words, verbatim. I am not sure any man has ever had such an invitation while traveling. I think in general we have to be very clear about drawing lines in the sand when it comes to men, be they taxi drivers, hotel staff or other travelers.

Oman
So what are your travel plans for the following few months? And once you complete your goal of doing every country, what comes next?
I have a few weeks left to finish my last eight countries. I am super excited to get to them and also pretty exhausted. I will have completed 135 countries in two and a half years by the time I finish. Once I complete my goal I want to take a break from social media, spend time with friends and family and go on longer trips to some of my favorite countries. I will never stop traveling since I've been doing it since the age of 4, and now I have a good list of places that I want to travel back to!
Meroe, Sudan.

And our signature question - if you could invite any four people from any period in human history to dinner, who would you invite and why?

Barack Obama, because I am inspired by his journey and would love to chat with him about what it was like being in the White House and also what it has been like watching the current administration. Malcolm X, because he was truly a pioneer of his time and many of his writings, observations and philosophies remain true to this day. James Baldwin because I love his writings and I would love to hear his travel stories. Nina Simone because she was such a talented artist who worked to reflect the times that she lived in. She spent a lot of time outside of the US and i would love to know what traveling was like for her back in the days. 
The photos in this interview are from Jessica's personal collection and we thank her for sharing her images with us here at NomadMania