The record-setting jetsetter is never in one place for long, and she wants the world to tag along on her journey.
Profile by Steve Root
There are people who love to travel, and then there’s Jessica Nabongo, the first documented Black woman to visit every country in the world, which is 195 by the United Nations count. And that’s a lot of passport stamps.
As a creator, Nabongo has parlayed her insatiable wanderlust into a cottage industry whose subsidiaries include content on major social media outlets; The Catch Me If You Can blog; a soon-to-be-released travel memoir by the same name, published by National Geographic; a members-only newsletter of luxury travel experiences; an online bazaar called The Catch that sells a curated collection of artisanal goods sourced from her travels … can her own fleet of Nabongo Air jumbo jets be far behind?
Bit by the international travel bug at the age of 4, the Detroit-born Ugandan American has scratched that itch ever since. “My parents loved to travel, and fortunately they sometimes took me and my two sisters with them,” says Nabongo, “so I was exposed to the world.” And whether they were visiting her mother’s Ugandan village with no electricity or running water or enjoying a high-end resort vacation, she says it was always without value judgments, which has informed her open-minded and wide-eyed worldview today. “Everything just is,” she says. “Nothing’s better or worse. It’s just different.”
Jessica's 5 tips for creators
After graduating with a major in English literature and a double minor in advertising-communications and Africana studies from St. John's University in New York, Nabongo initially worked for a pharmaceutical company, but always felt the call of the world. “After two years, I quit that corporate life, cut my hair and went to teach English in Japan. It was a pivotal moment that set my life off to what it’s become. I had never lived abroad, but I thought, ‘I’m going to do this for three years.’ That became seven, and during that time I traveled to more than 40 countries.”
Not that it’s been nonstop gallivanting. There was a period of more study when she got her Masters in Economic Development from the London School of Economics, followed by several years working for the United Nations in the Food and Agriculture Organization and consulting for the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Still, travel beckoned, and Nabongo fueled her quest with an entrepreneurial spirit. She launched an agency catering to Black travelers, and by running hosted trips, Nabongo’s checklist of visited countries expanded greatly. “It was while in Bali—country 60—in 2015 that I decided in earnest that I was going to go to every country in the world by the time I’m 35,” says Nabongo. She accomplished that goal on October 6, 2019, fittingly on her late father’s birthday, with a visit to the Republic of Seychelles.
And while her journey has been well-documented on Facebook, Instagram and TikTok, it was largely self-funded. “I was not getting paid to go to those countries,” Nabongo says. “I don’t do free trips. I don’t want to be obligated to create content. It’s always been the purest form of me visiting a country.”
Nearly half of her traveling (89 of 195 countries) has been done alone. “I prefer traveling with friends, but I love traveling solo because it makes me engage with the country more. I’m more likely to talk to the locals. I feel like I get a deeper connection to a place.
Sure, there are caveats. Islamophobia is real. Homophobia is real. There are challenges. But you’re gonna let the possibility of racism keep you from doing something? That’s crazy! And even if something happens, keep pushing. I’m not gonna let one racist person steal my joy.”
Joy is certainly not lacking in Nabongo’s world. She loves what she does and has plans for plenty more. “There’s a TV show in development, I have ideas for film, a cookbook. But more than anything, I want to do a children’s book series based on what I know now about the world that,” she says with a laugh, “I hope turns into a Disney ride."
Nabongo’s followers find her indomitable spirit infectious. “Everyone wants women to be afraid to go into the world alone. I am not. I’ve learned that most people are good. I move with positive energy, and that is a magnet for all these wonderful, amazing humans that are brought into my life.
A lot of Black people ask, ‘which countries are safe for Black people?’ I hate that we live in a world that makes people feel like they have to question, ‘can I go? Is it open to me?’
I hope that what people get from my journey is that the world is all of ours, it belongs to all of us, and we can go, we can play, we can meet, and we can see every place in the world that we want to see."
Jessica Nabongo is an Ugandan-American travel blogger and brand influencer. She is the first black woman to have travelled to every country in the world. Her book, "The Catch Me If You Can", goes on sale on June 14. You can pre-order it on Amazon or your preferred retailer.