Female SOLOists: meet Jessica Nabongo – the first black woman to visit every country
Forget the idea that solo explorers are all ex-paratroopers or posh white men with icicles on their beard, planting flags and drinking their own pee. There are plenty of female adventurers who are breaking boundaries – and records – with their own epic trips.
It’s a subject that I explored in my book A Trip Of One’s Own, which shines a light on female explorers through history whose incredible journeys have often been overlooked – from a 4th-century nun to a 19th-century globe-girdling cyclist.
But when it comes to modern-day female adventurers – and this new monthly column, showcasing women exploring the world their own way – few people fit the brief better than Jessica Nabongo: the first black woman to travel to every country in the world and the last person you might think of when you hear the word “explorer”.
I remember getting promoted and thinking ‘Is this all there is?’
When we catch up, Jessica, 38, shows me the text messages that have just pinged on her phone. “They’re from people in Cameroon, Nigeria, New York, The Netherlands…” she says. “Every single day I’m in touch with people whom I’ve met while travelling.”
It’s not surprising that Jessica, who is now based in LA and Detroit, has friends scattered all over the globe. She’s been to every single country in the world. All 195 of them. And she’s the first black woman to document it.
It’s a very different life to the one she had in 2005, when she was working in New York for the pharmaceutical company, Pfizer. “I had a very corporate existence and was getting promoted, but I remember thinking ‘Is this all there is?’,” she says.
“I knew the 9-5 wasn’t for me.” She moved to Japan at 23 and lived and worked there for a year before travelling and studying in London. It was around this time that she started her blog, The Catch Me If You Can.
I was never afraid to fail or try new things
Jessica says her love of travel came from her parents, who took her on international trips from the age of four. “We’d go to Canada and Uganda, where my parents are from, and we’d do a lot of camping around the US,” she says.
“One of my earliest memories is going on safari in Uganda and the monkeys jumping on the car.” She credits her mum and dad with giving her the freedom to experiment. “They really stoked my curiosity and I was never afraid to fail or try new things.”
The idea to try and visit every country in the world came to her in Bali in 2017. “I was 33 and I just thought that it would be cool to be the first black woman to go to every country in the world by my 35th birthday. I had already been to 60 countries by this point.” Which meant she had 135 to go.
At one point, I doubted myself and wondered if I was crazy
She readily admits that there were many times on her odyssey where it felt like too much. In 2019, she took 170 flights and flew a quarter of a million miles. “I’d think ‘What am I doing? I’m spending all my money on this and my body hurts from so many economy flights,” she says.
“I really doubted myself and wondered if I was crazy. But then the media started picking up my story. At that point, I really didn’t want to fail publicly, so there was kind of no other option,” she laughs.
Using a mixture of savings, credit card points and income from setting up her own travel agency, Nabongo has self-funded all her trips. “I collected air miles as I went along,” she says. She must have a fair few by now? “I’m a million-miler!”
Solo travel is great. I don’t get as much of the culture when I’m with friends or family
She did most of her trips solo, visiting 89 countries by herself. “Solo travel is great because it forces you to interact with people who are there,” she says. “I don’t get as much of the culture when I’m with friends or family. If you’re solo, you’re talking to your taxi driver, the bartender, the waiter and they make the experience richer.”
Jessica has even mastered the big potential drawback of solo travel – getting good photos of yourself. “I just ask people,” she says. “If I spot someone with a camera I expect they’ll take a decent picture. Then I set up the frame and tell them to just click. If the photos are terrible, I’ll just wait until they’ve gone and then ask someone else.”
Her tip for solo travel first-timers is to pick a place where you think you’ll be comfortable as that will make you feel more confident. “Ask yourself ‘What are you afraid of?’ and interrogate that fear,” she says. “It’s a tiny percentage of travellers who’ve a bad experience. Take the negative and the positive with a grain of salt. Don’t hear one story and think ‘Oh my god, I can’t go to Costa Rica’ or wherever.”
Ask yourself ‘What are you afraid of?’ – then interrogate that fear
Jessica’s must-pack items include noise-cancelling headphones, compression socks and a metal tumbler that she uses on the plane to bring her use of single-use plastic down. When she visits a destination, she also tries to link up with a guide or local people.
“Instagram is great for that,” she says. “When I went to Chad, I ended up staying with a girl I met on the internet who was from Rwanda. We had a great time and she was a complete stranger who let me stay with her. My journey was made beautiful by the kindness of strangers.” She doesn’t always plan everything, though. “I’ll land and I’ll literally Google ‘Best things to do in X’,” she admits.
Over the course of her travels she has encountered tough times. “I was in Paris on the train and a guy tried to steal my phone,” she says. “In Miami, a police officer put a gun in my face. In Rome, a taxi driver tried to kiss me on my mouth. For a while these things made me nervous and scared, but I got my confidence back. Stuff like that could happen anywhere.”
In South Sudan, my bride price would be 30 cows – which isn’t very much
She says there wasn’t a country she didn’t want to visit. “I’m so curious and I really value new experiences so I just wanted to see what they were all like,” she says. “I try to go places with an open mind. There weren’t any I was afraid of visiting because I’m not afraid of people, most people are good. No country in the world is completely safe or unsafe.”
But a five-day visit to South Sudan surprised her. “A friend of a friend connected me with some local people and we went to a cattle camp for hours,” she says. “It was wonderful because cattle are so important to the Dinka people and I got to see how they pack up their lives and move with the cows.
It was funny because I asked a guy what my bride price would be and he said “maximum 30 cows” which isn’t very much. Even though I’m 5ft 7, in South Sudan I’m very short.”
Next up, is a four-week trip around Africa in December
Although she’s experienced every country on the planet, Jessica says she doesn’t have a favourite. “I can’t do it,” she laughs. “I get asked this all the time. So many of them are special for so many reasons. But I’ve been to 50 countries more than once and about 20 countries more than five times.” She picks out Colombia, Italy and Cuba as places she can’t wait to go back to, and namechecks Senegal, Georgia and Trinidad and Tobago for their under-rated food scenes.
She says she’s still surprised when people recognise her or message her to say she’s inspired them, despite her 208,000 followers on Instagram. “The fact that people are inspired by what I love to do and would be doing anyway is mind-boggling to me,” she says. “People say ‘Oh it takes courage’ or ‘You’re brave to go there’ but I just get on a plane and go.” Her passport must be pretty well stamped by now? “Oh yeah, it’s like this big,” she says, holding her fingers as wide as her smile. “It’s beautiful.”
Next up, is a four-week trip around Africa in December. “People say ‘But you’ve been everywhere… what are you going to do now?’. I’m like ‘Well, I’m going to go back.’ There are always new experiences and I live for new experiences.”
Jessica Nabongo’s book The Catch Me If You Can is out now. She spoke to Kate Wills, author of A Trip Of One’s Own, for Female SOLOists – a new monthly column for SOLO on women exploring the world their own way.
Catch up on the next interviews with Anna McNuff and Leilani McGonagle now.