I’m the first black woman to travel to all 195 countries

Instead of throwing herself a birthday party, Jessica Nabongo planned to visit every country in the world by the time she was 35.

Landing in the Seychelles on October 6, 2019, Nabongo, now 38, became the first black woman and one of fewer than 250 people to travel to all 195 countries: 193 states recognized by the United Nations plus two non-member states, the Saints See and Palestinian Territories.

With dual Ugandan-American citizenship, the Detroit native has been able to explore countries most Americans will never see, including Turkmenistan, Cuba and North Korea. She has compiled her photos and stories into a new book with National Geographic called The Catch Me If You Can: One Woman’s Journey to Every Country in the World.

“It was the kindness of strangers that made my trip so beautiful,” Nabongo told the Post.

At 35, Jessica Nabongo became the first black woman to travel to every country in the world.
At 35, Jessica Nabongo became the first black woman to travel to every country in the world.

In October 2018, Nabongo, who works for a luxury travel agency and as a consultant for the UN, entered North Korea on her Ugandan passport. (The American government forbids its citizens to visit the country.) She was shocked by what she saw.

“I pictured North Korea as a place where the sun didn’t shine, the sky was never blue and everyone wore gray,” she wrote of the one-party state in The Catch Me If You Can.

But Nabongo told the Post that she was pleasantly surprised at how “normal it felt.”

Nabongo spent five days on a “very mandatory government tour” exploring the capital, Pyongyang, with a private tour group she found on Google.

Jessica Nabongo in India.
Jessica Nabongo in India.
Jessica Nabongo

“I have followed children on field trips. I saw couples in parks and grocery stores [which were small but stocked with food] and people who ride bikes or take the subway to work,” she said.

One night the group went to a bar full of music and people – mostly men – enjoying a beer after work. She said she can’t really speak to many North Koreans due to the language barrier and their “reserved” and “quiet” nature, but felt they were intrigued to meet an American.

Nabongo admitted that people often ask her about the labor camps and prisons in North Korea, which she hasn’t seen, but noted that she has never been to the projects or a prison in the United States either.

“Horrible things are happening all over the world,” she said.

Turkmenistan was “the most unusual country” she visited. Holding the Guinness World Record for the highest density of white marble buildings, the city was “new, shiny, empty and white”.
Jessica Nabongo

However, she noted how isolated the country is. “In the city you realize that the country is not very exposed to the rest of the world. Nowhere do you see advertisements, brightly colored clothes or jeans, or western brands in the supermarket,” she wrote. North Korea, along with Cuba and Turkmenistan, were among the only countries with virtually no WiFi.

However, she wrote that the city is full of skyscrapers, large apartment buildings, government buildings and public squares “just like you see in other capitals”.

Nabongo writes in her book that Pyongyang “felt like a time capsule,” a common description for many communist countries, and vividly recalls the green-and-red subway cars, a relic of the 1970s.

Despite the city’s “retro” feel, it received an upgrade in 2012, when leader Kim Jung Un announced that the skyline was too gray and ordered buildings painted “surprisingly bright” shades of pink, green and yellow.

Well aware of their social media influence, Nabongo doesn’t always geotag their locations to avoid flooding a destination with Instagram-inspired tourists, as happened in Morocco.
Jessica Nabongo in Iran.
Jessica Nabongo in Iran.
Jessica Nabongo

A seasoned traveler since the age of 4 — when she got her first passport stamp while traveling to Canada with her parents — Nabongo said people should try to keep an open mind when traveling around the world and live up to their expectations.

For example, she said she was “overwhelmed” when she got to Machu Picchu because she’d seen a million pictures: “You’re like, ‘Oh, OK, that’s exactly how I imagined it.'”

Nabongo recommends engaging with locals to see what they recommend to see, do and eat.

“The people who are in the country know more about the country than Google will ever know,” she said.