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 11:29 AM
Updated: Apr 27, 2018 11:29 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."

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