At Home Around The World

Jessica Nabongo, a Ugandan-American travel blogger, is the first Black woman to have documented her journeys to every country in the world
Jessica Nabongo is the first Black woman to have documented her journeys to every country in the world
Jessica Nabongo is the first Black woman to have documented her journeys to every country in the world Photos: Jessica Nabongo

In the latter half of 2019, Ugandan-American travel blogger Jessica Nabongo was wrapping up her trip to Pakistan. As she prepared to board her flight from Lahore to Doha, she encountered a surprising obstacle. While passing her luggage through security, Nabongo, who is the first Black woman to have documented her journeys to every country in the world, noticed a heightened level of scrutiny.

"Security officers began examining my belongings closely," she recalled, "initially appearing to follow routine procedures. But things escalated as they inspected every item in my luggage."

Shots of Nabongo from her travels
Shots of Nabongo from her travels

"They pulled me aside, a police officer arrived and started inquiring about my passport. The questioning intensified, asking why I was flying out of Lahore instead of returning to Islamabad, where I had initially entered the country," she added. What followed soon after was even weirder—they placed Nabongo in a medical X-ray machine, suggesting concerns about drugs. "It was a distressing experience, considering I was alone, in a foreign country, and facing intense scrutiny. Although I knew I didn't have drugs, the ordeal was traumatising."

Nevertheless, Jessica harbours no bitterness about Pakistan or her nightmarish experience at the airport. "Despite the awful incident, my perception of Pakistan remains positive. I had an incredible experience interacting with people and exploring its beauty. While the event was challenging, it hasn't discouraged me from considering a return to the country. I felt perfectly safe during my stay. For instance, when I arrived in Islamabad from Muscat, I was one of the few women on the plane, and the men were very considerate and helpful."

This is what sets Nabongo apart—her resilient spirit to explore and discover the goodness in people, even amidst the most challenging circumstances. And of her journeys to 195 countries worldwide, the incident in Pakistan is merely one of the many anecdotes she has amassed.

Shots of Nabongo from her travels
Shots of Nabongo from her travels

A Traveller At Heart

Growing up, Nabongo's parents loved to travel; they would go on summer trips to Canada, Uganda, London, the Caribbean, and Mexico. This early exposure to different cultures sparked her interest in the world.

"Even as an adult, I continued travelling with friends or solo during my undergraduate years. In 2008, I moved to Japan and started blogging. After a year, I travelled for nine months before moving to London. That's when I officially started my blog, 'The Catch Me If You Can'. Every year, I had a map on my blog to track where I had been, and this sparked my obsession with crossing out more destinations on it," she said.

Initially, Nabongo, who has over 244k followers on Instagram, had planned to visit every country by her 40th or 50th birthday. "But in 2017, I decided to aim for my 35th birthday. I overshot by five months, but I achieved the goal."

Shots of Nabongo from her travels
Shots of Nabongo from her travels

Her Travels And Troubles

Nabongo, who is also the founder of the travel agency "Jet Black," specialising in crafting itineraries for small group trips to Africa, is easily recognisable as African in her appearance. When asked whether this presented difficulties during her travels, she responded: "Most of my challenges stemmed from immigration, whether in the US, UK, Turkey, Fiji, or the Philippines. However, once inside a country, things usually go smoothly."

Philosophers such as Rousseau promoted the notion that the majority of individuals are inherently good, and Nobongo aligns strongly with this belief. "The kindness of strangers shaped my journey. Guides in places like Jordan and Venezuela invited me into their homes for meals. This changed my worldview. I realised that in everyday life, encounters with 'bad' people are rare. Strangers, in fact, kept me safe throughout my journey," she said.

Furthermore, like everyone, Nabongo has also had profound experiences while travelling. "My guide in Iran invited me to his home. While chatting with the women there, one of them asked me about travelling on my period. I responded that I choose to travel irrespective of it, as I prefer not to adjust my life around such occurrences. Those women were shocked but intrigued," she said.

"In many places, women are shamed or secluded during their periods. I want to empower women to feel comfortable travelling during that time. I use my platform to talk about uncomfortable topics and normalise women's experiences, encouraging them to reclaim their power," she added.

Nabongo at Kakku Pagodas in Myanmar
Nabongo at Kakku Pagodas in Myanmar

Experiments With Food

Despite not considering herself a foodie, Nabongo finds that food automatically becomes a significant part of her experience everywhere she goes.

"In Lahore, I wanted to try a local dish. Some locals warned me against it, saying I would get sick. But I went ahead, tried it, and enjoyed it without any issues. They couldn't believe it and thought I would fall ill."

Discussing her less-than-pleasant culinary experiences, Nabongo has encountered her fair share of challenges. "In Uganda, there's a local delicacy called nsenene, consisting of fried grasshoppers. Despite its popularity, I found it challenging to enjoy. Additionally, consuming fermented horse milk, known as kumis in Kyrgyzstan, was one of my least favourite culinary experiences."

Nabongo, currently working on a cookbook with National Geographic that showcases 75 recipes from 75 different countries, has also had meaningful experiences with food. One particularly memorable encounter happened in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan. "I had been travelling extensively and was quite exhausted. Upon arriving, my driver insisted I eat something before heading to my hotel. He took me to his home, where his wife cooked for me. It was a beautiful moment of shared humanity, and I found striking similarities with my Ugandan culture," she said.

A Witness to Change

In her extensive travels, Nabongo has observed several positive changes in how women are perceived and treated globally, especially in countries where societal restrictions may be more prevalent. "It's evident—from a woman named Salma making sambusas in a small Kenyan village and aspiring to be a chef to a women's collective turning a prison into a spa in Thailand's Chiang Mai. These examples showcase women supporting each other and creating opportunities for themselves, whether generating income or pursuing unique ventures."

She believes travel significantly fosters gender equality by exposing individuals to diverse cultures and perspectives. It enables women to see possibilities beyond limitations, inspiring them to pursue their aspirations. "Women empowerment is a continuous process, with small but impactful steps building up over time. Living under a patriarchal system instils fear in women. By sharing my journey, I hope they get inspired to break free from the fear that holds them back."

The Change She Wants To See

In an era where female voices are increasingly being amplified, narratives like Nabongo's provide a platform for women to showcase their independence and diverse perspectives. "What I want to communicate to women is simple: just go!" she said.

Furthermore, the travel industry can foster a more equitable representation of global destinations, encouraging travellers to explore various cultures and landscapes. Expanding on this point, Nabongo mentioned, "In many cases, travel experts on Africa or Southeast Asia are not from those regions but Whites. It's crucial to let locals be the voice of their nations. The industry must embrace inclusivity and allow authentic voices to guide travellers."

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