Jessica Nabongo, a UN employee turned travel blogger, has become the first black woman to visit every country on earth.
She set out to visit all 193 countries in the world in 2016 and on October 6, arrived in the last on her list, Seychelles, according to a post on her Instagram page. She also clocked up a couple of what the UN calls “non-observer status” territories, taking her total to 195.
Born in Detroit to Ugandan parents and holding two passports, Nabongo’s epic odyssey has not just been about getting her name in a record book.
She is hoping to pave the way for women and people of colour to do the same. Often, as the only person of colour 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 travelling on European passports. “Navigating the world as a woman can be very difficult,” Nabongo told CNN Travel last year. “I have had a pretty wide range of experiences. I have been accused of being a prostitute. I have had men chase me before. I have been assaulted on the street,” she added.
Despite being a self-identified African, it did not mean everything was smooth sailing when Nabongo travelled 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 said.
However, some countries were better than others: “Senegal, is amazing. You don’t see them privileging white people over Africans. They treat everyone the same. Same in Ghana,” she added.
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 travelling to the United States.
“I have had people ask me about how safe the US is, especially for people of colour,” Nabongo said.
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. Whether counselling a person of colour who is afraid to travel or a local who thinks it is okay to try and touch her head without asking, Nabongo serves a cultural ambassador role that may not be visible behind those colourful shots she posts on Instagram.
Speaking of Instagram, Nabongo has some words of caution for travellers who use African people as objects. “Instagram is great. I love it. It has obviously given me a platform so that I can educate people about different places in the world,” she said.
“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 are willing to use anybody and anything.”
Ultimately, Nabongo says her quest was not just about crossing countries off a list. It was about changing the perception of female travellers, especially those of colour.
“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.”