Jessica Nabongo: The first black woman to travel to every country
Written by Ornella Bressan
On 29 May 2024

Jessica is a Ugandan-American writer known for being the first black woman to have travelled to all 195 countries, and recently doing all 7 continents and all the 50 states in the United States. Safe to say, she has an abundance of travelling experience. 

“I love travel,” Jessica says. “I’ve always loved travel. It’s always been a huge part of my life. 

“I think, honestly, the achievements I’ve made mean more to other people than me, and that’s okay. A lot of people who follow my journey are inspired by what I’m doing and that’s why I share it, so that people see what I’m doing and it sort of helps them to either remove some fear around travelling, or just to realise that they can travel to all of these places as well.”

Jessica visited Senegal amongst other African countries more than once | Credit: Seyni Ba

Growing up in a household that showed her the beauty of the world at an early age, Jessica is grateful for how much her parents travelled.

It made her fall in love with travelling, and that love is what motivated her when, one day, whilst working for the United States Agency for International Development, she called them and resigned to pursue her dream of opening a travel agency. 

“I’m a geography nerd,” she happily says. “I’ve been travelling internationally since I was four and when I was in my early twenties I knew I wanted to travel. 

“I started blogging about the places I have visited throughout the year in 2008 and seeing this map being slowly filled in, I knew eventually that I wanted to fill the entire map.”

And she did – In October 2019 she stepped foot in Seychelles and ticked from her list country number 195 out of 195.

An excerpt from her blog sharing her adventure in Kenya

Being Ugandan, she travels to Africa a few times per year and loves it. She couldn’t decide which country was her favourite and she’s been to at least 10 countries more than once, naming Kenya, Senegal, Egypt, her home country Uganda, and Nigeria.

One aspect she noticed during her travels is that she gets more immersed in the local culture when travelling alone compared to when she’s with a friend or family because ‘all I have are the people’. 

“All I have are the people [when travelling alone] whereas when I travel with other people I’m chatting with them, spending more time with them, so I may not be getting as much because I’m focused on the person that I’m with as well.”

Jessica in Seychelles | Credit: Jessica Nabongo

When thinking about fear of travelling to a particular country she says: “The US is one of the most dangerous countries I’ve lived in – I mean, I had a police officer pull a gun on me in Miami. 

“That hasn’t happened to me anywhere else, so I’ve never felt that my life was in danger outside of the United States, but I felt it when I was in the US. 

“I’ve been to Afghanistan, South Sudan, Iran, Iraq and had no problems and for me it’s also because I understand the world we live in.

“[As someone who] studied International Development at London School of Economics and worked for the UN, I understand bias. In the United States, we have a lot of bias and media in the West in general. 

“They want us to think that Africa is one big country and it’s very poor and everyone is starving when it’s not the reality. They want us to be afraid of Muslim people – we don’t need to be.

Jessica sharing her experience in Nairobi

“I understand the bias and propaganda in the West and because of that I never allow that to inform my travel experiences. 

“So for Afghanistan, I found a guide in advance because it’s a country that you need someone to help you navigate, especially because I don’t speak the language. And I did the same for South Sudan, Iran – I took measures to be with local people so I could learn about the country, whilst also having someone to help me navigate it.”

Jessica tells everyone that she is not afraid because she is not afraid of people: “Obviously there are dangerous places, but that’s why I have a local guide so they can help me navigate around those dangerous places.”

So how can someone connect with those people?

“People are people. We all live in a globalised world and we’re all connected to the internet so we listen to the same music, so just try to connect with someone on something that you are genuinely interested in. 

You’re gonna find someone in another country that has similar interests to you. Another thing to remember is that when you travel most people are excited to have foreigners in their countries – Especially if it’s a place that isn’t visited very often. 

People love to show off their culture, so I think if you come from a place of just kindness and curiosity, I think it will be easy to connect with them. 

Jessica in Sri Lanka | Credit: Elton Anderson

Even if you go to a country you don’t know the language. I spent a lot of time in markets and places where even if I’m not participating I can always observe. 

But we live in a globalised world where you will find someone that speaks English.”

When thinking about her connection with locals, one of the many memories she holds dear is the time she was leaving Jordan and her tour guide, Maha, stopped at her house on their way to the airport and gave Jessica a dress from her closet that she still has to this day.

“That’s something I’m always gonna remember about her and something I’m always gonna cherish,” she says.

Now, she is working with National Geographic on her next book, following the success of her biography, The Catch Me if You Can. This book will be a global cookbook that will touch on many foods she had the opportunity to try during her decades of travelling experience, which she believes will be the first book to have a large variety of different types of cuisines within a single book.

See Jessica’s latest achievement of visiting all the 7 continents

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