Meet Jessica Nabongo — The First Black Woman Set to Travel the Entire World
Ugandan-American Jessica Nabongo is on a quest to visit every country in the world. Learn how she’s changing the travel narrative while having the adventure of a lifetime.
Photographs by Anjelica Jardiel
Cultural ambassador Jessica Nabongo’s work is about changing the travel narrative that Westerners tell themselves when they journey abroad. She is the founder and CEO of Jet Black, a travel firm that promotes tourism to a number of countries in Africa, the Caribbean, and Central and South America. The Detroit-born Ugandan-American started traveling when she was six, and now the former United Nations employee plans to become the first black woman to travel to every country in the world.
Jessica’s Instagram feed features experiences she’s had along her journey: taking her first solo motorbike ride in the Republic of Nauru, getting her hair cut by a Congolese refugee barber in Malawi, and spending time at a cattle camp in Sudan. Her photo essays about countries with low rates of tourism provide her followers with a nuanced perspective about places often pigeonholed by international news outlets and avoided by travelers.
I caught up with the jetsetter during a brief stopover in New York City, while she was recovering from Carnival celebrations in Trinidad and Tobago. Next she will begin the next leg of her adventure, with stops in Iran, Iraq, and Myanmar on her itinerary. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
You started traveling at a young age — at age six you traveled to London and Uganda. What about those childhood experiences helped foster the wanderlust that manifested itself during adulthood?
Jessica: The thing I remember about planes is that they were super fun. I remember getting the wings and playing games and having meals. As far as my memories of London, all I have are pictures.
With Uganda my parents were like, “We’re going home, we’re going to see family.” My parents normalized it in advance. I think this turned into wanderlust because my parents never made a big deal out of travel. It was like, “It’s summer, we’re going to go to Mexico,” or “We’re going to go to Jamaica,” or “We’re going to the Bahamas.” Sometimes they left us and went and traveled. So traveling wasn’t a big deal or something to be fearful of. I remember other people’s reaction to this idea of going to Africa because we think about Africa as a monolith. In second grade I went to a predominantly white school, and when I came back from Uganda students asked if we lived with lions and tigers. I remember being like … why would people live with lions?
This is a great way to segue into a conversation about the way we talk about travel and what writers and influencers get wrong when they call places “exotic,” “far-flung,” and “war-torn.”
Jessica: Because I’m Ugandan, because I’ve worked for the United Nations, because I have a master’s degree from the London School of Economics in Development, I just view the world in a way that most people who are “influencers” do not. So I will say I cringe a lot when I see how people talk about certain countries or how people represent certain places or take pictures. I cringe because people don’t capture the norm. We have to stop othering people; that’s the biggest thing.
If you speak a different language, your language is not weird or it doesn’t sound funny; it just is different from my language because we are from two different parts of the world. We have to see that, yeah, you’re just a person who lives in a different place than I do, and that’s okay — it’s not bad, it’s not good, it’s just different. I think once we do that, we can move forward. Forget about fictitious borders: We’re all sharing the same planet.
You said traveling, in some ways, turned you into an environmentalist. In one Instagram post you talk about plastic you saw on a beach in Senegal. People are traveling more and trying to be eco-conscious while they do it. For you that means being anti-plastic. What should travelers — both digital nomads and novice travelers — know about the environment that we might not initially think of?
Jessica: The plastic thing is major. Airlines are some of the biggest culprits. While it may seem a little inconvenient to bring your own reusable cup or your own reusable bottle or your own silverware, it really does make a difference.
I would really just urge people to take count of how many pieces of plastic you use when you travel. Do a daily journal. Sometimes you can’t avoid it — sometimes I have to drink water from a plastic bottle. That happens pretty frequently, especially with the countries I have remaining on my list, and I think that’s okay, but I think it’s how you dispose of those bottles that we take for granted.
You have your signature look — shaved head, bright lip color, beautiful scenery, and interesting textiles. What advice do you have for travelers who are still trying to find their unique perspective?
Jessica: I think that authenticity is key. I think don’t try to be a carbon copy of anybody else; this part is really for those people who want to be “influencers” — we’re seeing so much of the same thing. It’s such a saturated market and it’s so boring. The only way for you to stand out is to be authentic, so find your unique self.
I have been traveling for a really long time, and not that I’m a super shopper, but I just love jewelry and fabrics and things like that, so that’s why that comes through. You can look at me and you’re like, “Wow, this girl has picked up her wardrobe from all over the place,” because markets are literally my favorite thing to do in any country. I love the characters I can meet in markets, and I love to buy clothes and jewelry and accessories. So I’m actually starting an e-commerce site called The Clutch which will have things that I’ve picked up from around the world, launching May 2019, so coming soon.
What role does Airbnb play in your travel, and has that changed over time?
Jessica: I’ve been using Airbnb since 2012. The first time was in Italy, when my sister came to see me and we thought it was a weird concept. I remember I went to check it out first before we booked it. The site has come a long way since then, and our understanding and trust of this system has changed since then too. The best part about Airbnb now is the Experiences — those are a game changer. That’s what I get excited for now, and why I recommend them. A lot of people want a connection. I have that because of my large social media following, and I lived abroad, and I have friends living in many countries, but there are a lot of people who don’t know anyone in a foreign country.
I often point people to Airbnb Experiences because I think it’s so charming; it’s super easy, you know exactly what you’re getting because of the reviews, and if you hit it off with that person then maybe you can explore more with them. I did this kung fu class in Beijing and I loved it. I learned so much because I didn’t realize the philosophy behind kung fu and that the art is a way of life, not just a fighting style; it’s not that at all, so for me that was interesting because it was something I had no idea about and it turned out to be way better than I could have ever imagined.
You’ve done so much traveling that hiccups and unexpected obstacles are bound to happen. How do you bounce back from a bad trip?
Jessica: I rely on my friends. I know I can call them and cry or complain. With this journey I try to think of the bigger picture. I will say that while I was in Mali — that was the last bad trip I had, and it was just the first four days that were bad — the last two days of it were absolutely phenomenal. I think even the statement I just made is a reminder that things do get better and things can shift super quickly.
The biggest thing is maintaining your positive attitude through it all. Taking a moment to relax and acknowledge my frustrations helps, too — whether that be by buying a bottle of wine and drinking it, or deciding to stay indoors and watch Netflix or read a book, I allow myself that space to just do nothing. After that I feel better.
It seems that you are able to let go of the fears that are often heaped upon solo female travelers.
Jessica: I am aware of the issues, but I don’t let fear stop me. If something happens, it was just bad luck.
There are good things that happen, too. People talk about Johannesburg being dangerous. I was there, and one night I spilled all the contents of my purse in the backseat of an Uber — people talk about how dangerous Ubers are there. The next day I’m frantically looking for everything and can’t figure out what happened, and [hotel] management calls and says, “A man is here with all of your things.” My Uber driver had my credit cards, cash, everything. And he was just like, “I knew you were visiting, and you would need this stuff, so that’s why I wanted to bring it back to you.” That man could have run off with my whole life. So I think we really have to stop being afraid of everyone and focus on being positive, focus on traveling with an open mind and traveling with the aim of learning rather than confirming assumptions.
You’re the first in doing what you’re doing, but there are lots of people of color who have done enterprising new things. Who do you look up to?
Jessica: Lena Waithe — I love that she is exactly who she is and she is unapologetic and she’s also putting other people on, I love that. Issa Rae, Donald Glover. These are all people who are within a couple of years of my age, but we’re just living in such a beautiful time where people are just out here, shining. One thing that I love about all of these people that I mention is that they are telling our stories in the mainstream and they are shifting the culture of media and I’m super inspired by that.
About the author: Latria N. Graham is a writer and fifth-generation farmer living in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Her work has appeared in Outside Magazine, The Guardian, espnW, and The New York Times as well as a number of other local and national outlets. You can usually find her traveling the backroads of the Deep South, watching the sky for woodsmoke, hoping it leads her to the local bbq joint. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.