Behind every phenomenal woman is a journey of stories worth telling. Globally recognized, Jessica Nabongo, a native Detroiter and the first Black woman to travel to every country in the world, has an astonishing record of achievements and a wealth of wisdom to share.
She sat down with Strut Editor, Erikka Yvonne, to talk about life as a history-making jetsetter, growing pains and lessons, her new book, and why you should stop watching crime dramas.
Back Story into Jessica Nabongo’s Life
A first-generation American of Ugandan descent, Jessica Nabongo is a world-renowned writer, photographer, and travel expert. Nabongo, as she’s affectionately known, describes herself as someone driven by curiosity and freedom.
Everything I do in life is driven by my curiosity and deep desire to always have my freedom. Owning my time, location, independence. I can be anywhere at any time. I can say yes or no to anything and I love that!
Growing up, Jessica remembers being curious about the world around her. Her parents prioritized international and domestic travel. They took family trips every summer and filled their home with encyclopedias, atlases, and a globe.
I’ve been traveling since I was four [and] by the time I graduated high school, I’d been to eight countries and one territory.
Her youth, as she recalls, was also marked by discovery and exploration. She was encouraged to participate and allowed to walk away from any activity of her choosing. Never being forced to commit to activities helped her realize possibility and cultivated a conviction to live a life derived from the things she loved and wanted for herself. This later compelled Nabongo to leave her post-college, well-paid pharmaceutical job to teach English in Japan.
Finding Herself & Honoring Her Truth
Taking the road less traveled has not always been easy. Jessica remembers battling depression because she didn’t fit in, yet she resolved that being herself and doing what she loved was the key to happiness. In addition to honoring her truth, Nabongo has taken other steps to maintain her mental health, such as seeing a therapist.
“That’s incredibly helpful, [and] honestly, it’s about the energy you allow into your life. Not just people, it’s also the things you watch. A lot of Americans are obsessed with crime shows. That really causes you to have anxiety, and be afraid of strangers. I’m not afraid of human beings!” Inspired by Marie Kondo, Jessica also makes sure everything in her life brings joy. “My space is always bright because that makes me feel alive. I wear bright colors, drink a lot of water, and try to eat healthy. Everything you’re allowing into your life is going to contribute to your mental health.”
Impact of her Travel Experiences
As a self-proclaimed “geography nerd,” Jessica’s chronicled adventures pre-dates social media’s now booming Black travel movement. Having started the “Catch Me If You Can” blog in 2009, she recalls wanting to fill the map of places she’d been by age forty or fifty. In October 2019, Jessica, in her thirties, completed her history-making voyage around the world, gaining global recognition as the first documented Black woman to travel to all 195 countries and 10 territories.
It’s still kind of unbelievable [and] it’s much bigger than me!
Jessica’s latest achievement, authoring her first book, The Catch Me If You Can, was not always an intention of hers, but when she received a call from National Geographic, the rest was history [making].
Writing a book is very difficult, but it was nice to have a partner helping me make sure I was telling the stories I wanted to tell [and] to be with National Geographic, as a photographer, as a lover of geography, it’s a dream!
New Book, The Catch Me If You Can
Holding a newly printed copy with pride, Nabongo gave us a sneak peek of the book’s 400+ pages of captivating stories and images. The change of scenery from her Detroit home to Punta Mita, Mexico allowed her the clarity of mind to write. As for the genre, “I would say it’s part memoir, part travelog, some travel tips, and a lot of commentary on social issues. It’s something anyone will pick up and love.”
The Catch Me If You Can: One Woman’s Journey to Every Country in the World is available starting today, June 14th. Purchase anywhere books are sold, including your favorite independent, black-owned bookstores.
I want people to read it cover to cover because it is telling a linear story, but sometimes people will just want to go to a specific country like, what was that place she went to? that restaurant? or I want to stay at that hotel she mentioned. I wonder if I can find that tour guide she used.
To prospective travelers she exclaims, “Just start!” She recommends exploring the vastness of one’s home country before venturing into international spaces. She also warns, “You can’t be afraid of humans! Let go of that fear, then you can feel comfortable traveling to most places in the world.” Though she’s watched planes go from being almost empty in 2020 to being packed with”revenge travelers,” citing a noticeable difference in traveler etiquette due to the lockdown, she believes there’s no better time to start traveling.
What keeps Jessica Nabongo struttin’ after making history?
“Honestly, my desire to share what I’ve learned through the life that I’ve lived.” Her key takeaways: “Most people you come across are good, we’re more similar than we are different, [and] the most important thing is to sit still, get out of societal pressures, and really define success for yourself,” a message she also offers to her younger self.
As one of less than 300 people to have traveled to every country in the world, she recognizes,
There’s so much knowledge gained in that. That experience has shaped everything. So much of what I do with my platform is to reduce bias through storytelling and get people to think differently about the world around us. I’m motivated every day to share what I’ve learned and make the world better.