World traveling Detroiter Jessica Nabongo shares journey in new memoir

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Forty-one countries away from hitting her goal of traveling to every country in the world by the age of 35 — and becoming the first Black woman to do it — Detroiter Jessica Nabongo was over it. Over the travel. Over the logistics. Over it all. 

"Nothing was working out and I was so depressed," said Nabongo, who was in a market in Mali in West Africa at the time. "I called my friend and said, 'What am I doing?'"

Then a photographer who was with her in the market told some people about her quest to travel around the world. He told her, in French, "it's not for you, it's for us."

"That really fueled me. The journey was so much bigger than me," said Nabongo, 38. 

Nabongo, pictured in Iran, traveled to 89 countries solo during her quest around the world. One of her goals with her book, "The Catch Me If You Can," she said, is to change how people perceive different places around the world, especially those some may consider dangerous.

Nabongo is now sharing the story of her incredible quest around the globe in a new memoir out Tuesday called "The Catch Me If You Can: One Woman's Journey to Every Country in the World" (National Geographic, $35).

The gorgeous 416-page book, written by Nabongo herself, documents every single country she visited, all 195, along with stories in each place. Vibrant photos that show her everywhere from Iran to her final country of Seychelles off the coast of East Africa, which she visited in the fall of 2019, take readers on a visual journey as well.

The images "were really important to me," said Nabongo, who has been doing photography since 2005 and was approached by a variety of publishers about writing a book before choosing National Geographic. "I had one head of a very large lit agency tell me, 'You can't write a book with your photos because you're not a famous photographer.' I can't wait for him to see this book."

The photos were important, she said, especially for countries such as Yemen and South Sudan, because sometimes that's all people will see. It was also about depicting a Black woman, enjoying herself traveling internationally.

"For me, it was incredibly important to include images because that's how we shift the narrative," she said. "People have to see it."

Still, Nabongo said her intent with her new book isn't to convince people to travel to every country in the world. It's about getting people to think differently about the world and that their own dreams are valid.

Detroit native Jessica Nabongo was the first Black woman to visit every country in the world. Her shares her journey in her new memoir, "The Catch Me If You Can: One Woman's Journey to Every Country in the World."

"If I could go to every country in the world, as a Black woman, which everyone thinks is such a scary thing (I don't), then you can make whatever dream you want to come to fruition," she said.

Nabongo, the daughter of Ugandan immigrants who has dual American and Uganda citizenship and got her first passport at the age of 4, said she initially never set out to crisscross the globe.

A graduate of St. John's University in New York City, she had a lucrative job in pharmaceutical sales and was back living in Detroit in her early 20s when she got a much smaller bonus from her employer than what she'd been planning on. Something inside of her "snapped," Nabongo writes. She decided to apply for a teaching job in Japan — Japanese has similarities to Luganda, her parents' native tongue — and soon she was packing up her Detroit condo and heading halfway across the globe.

She writes that her move to Japan "changed the trajectory of her life" and she decided even after she left Japan that she didn't want to work a 9-to-5 job in the United States. She started a blog, The Catch Me If You Can, and would travel until her money ran out. 

Her book is organized chronologically from her first travels until reaching her final country roughly six months after her 35th birthday. She traveled to more than 135 countries between 2017 and 2019. And she traveled to 89 of the 195 countries solo.

"When I'm traveling solo, I feel like I get deeper into the cultural fabric of a country because I'm spending more time talking to my driver, talking to everybody," she said.

Logistically, Nabongo, who also has a master's degree from the London School of Economics, said it was a "nightmare" coordinating it all and if she had to do it again, she'd do it differently, traveling continent by continent. She said the toughest areas were central and West Africa and the South Pacific because they were the hardest regions to travel within.

Her travels were also expensive. She had a boutique travel firm, Jet Black, but it was a victim of COVID-19. She often relied on frequent flier miles and credit card points. Out of money at one time, a friend convinced her to set up a Go Fund Me to keep going. It raised $28,000.

Nabongo, pictured in her upcoming book, "The Catch Me If You Can," visited Laos in 2015. By 2017, she accelerated her travels to visit every country on the globe, visiting 37 countries that year alone. She visited her final country, Seychelles, off the coast of East Africa, in the fall of 2019.

Ultimately, Nabongo hopes her book helps readers see not just other beautiful parts of the world but our common humanity.

"People have to read the stories of the people and the places to be able to find the humanity," said Nabongo, who counts Cuba, Senegal, Iran and Japan among her favorite countries she visited. "The way we talk about so many countries, it takes away their humanity. What this book does is reinstalls that humanity."

And what's next? Nabongo is still deciding, though she's looking into TV opportunities. But she has no plans to leave Detroit, and she especially loves it during the summer.

"I love Detroit," said Nabongo, who recently bought a condo in Los Angeles so she's splitting her time between there and Detroit. "It's such an amazing city. I could be anywhere in the world but I love Detroit."

'The Catch Me If You Can'

by Jessica Nabongo. Published by National Geographic.

Hits shelves Tuesday. Go to Source Booksellers in Detroit locally, 4240 Cass Avenue. 

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