→ Buy now: The Catch Me If You Can: One Woman’s Journey to Every Country in the World, $33, Bookshop.org
Jessica Nabongo is part of a rarified group of travelers: one who has been to every country in the world. For those counting, that’s 195 United Nations member countries and observer states.
According to NomadMania, a group that tracks and verifies those extreme travelers, fewer than 300 people have ever earned that distinction (more people have gone to outer space). But even in such a small, exclusive group, Nabongo stands out. She became the first Black woman to do it when she reached Seychelles in October 2019.
Now, roughly two-and-a-half years later, she’s inviting readers along for the journey in her new memoir and travel guide,The Catch Me If You Can: One Woman’s Journey to Every Country in the World, out June 14. In it, Nabongo, a Ugandan American from Detroit, shares vignettes from 100 countries in the order she visited them.
The more than 400-page book is illustrated with many of Nabongo’s vibrant personal photographs and details many of her adventures, be it visiting a cattle ranch in South Sudan, attending Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago, or scootering around Nauru, the world’s least-visited country. More than that, it explores what she learned along the way: of note, that people are largely good and there’s always more to countries than what’s shared in headlines. No matter how well traveled you are, Nabongo’s book will dare you to address your own preconceptions about other countries and to look at the world (and perhaps even your own capabilities) differently.
AFAR recently sat down with Nabongo to chat about changing the travel narrative, the power of human connections, and what’s next. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Which was harder: visiting 195 countries or writing a book about it?
Definitely writing the book. It was a joy to write the book, but my journey was so personal and driven by my curiosity, so I didn’t have as many notes as I would have had if I had planned strategically to write a book based on my adventures. My favorite part of it was just being able to be incredibly intentional about the countries I picked to write about, the images selected, and the stories that were told.
There are 195 U.N.-recognized nations, but you only included 100 in your book. How did you land on those?
Obviously, some of my favorite countries made the list. Then, because I knew this book would be image heavy, I thought about places we don’t usually see beautiful imagery from, like Somalia or Yemen. They are countries we often see specific types of media about—as if beauty and war can’t exist in the same place. It was really important to me to work to change the narrative about some of these countries. I hope people think differently about the world when they read the book, so I chose some countries specifically to show the beauty and humanity.
What countries were the most difficult to write about?
Algeria was challenging. I just had an amazing time there, and there were too many stories I wanted to tell, but the word count wasn’t in my favor, so I had to cut it down a lot. The other tough one was Seychelles. That was my last country. It was incredibly monumental, not just for my travels but in my life. That was really, really difficult to write. It ended up being a short entry, quite frankly, because I struggled to put what the journey meant for me and what that moment meant to me being surrounded by my friends and family into words.
What was something you learned while writing the book? Were there any “ah-ha” moments, like maybe you realized something about a place when you were revisiting it through your writing?
You know, it’s interesting because part of my writing process was reading old blog posts and looking at Instagram stories from when I was traveling. When you’re in something, you’re in it. But when you’re outside, you’re able to re-examine it. To be able to go back and watch my stories or read my blog, almost feels like being someone who didn’t do it—it was like taking myself on that journey again.
One country I saw differently was Madagascar. When I was there, I was just so focused on getting to these baobab trees. I was taking it in, but when I rewatched the videos and reread the captions, I realized how profound an effect being in Madagascar had on me. In that chapter, I talk a lot about the Western world and what we had lost or got away from. The Malagasy people are so community-minded, aren’t caught up in capitalism, and are really hardworking. That really came through for me when reliving the content from Madagascar.
Reading your book and scrolling through your Instagram, I don’t think there was any instance where you called anything “exotic” or fetishized a country for being different from your own, which can’t necessarily be said for all influencers. What harm does saying those things cause those countries, and how do you avoid falling into that rhetoric?
I grew up in the U.S., but I’m Ugandan. I look very stereotypical African, so I’ve always been othered here. But really, the only person who is a foreigner is the traveler. Nothing else is foreign; everything else is normal to them. So I think this book and my voice are important because of that. People are people—we’re all different, but we’re all similar in that we’re all just people. I hope that reading this book normalizes everything. That we stop thinking of the exotic and we start thinking of the world as one giant neighborhood.
I see how many influencers travel and it makes me uncomfortable because it’s often patronizing. You know, people want to go to orphanages in Africa, but not orphanages in Europe. I think that’s problematic. Ultimately, my goal through my storytelling is to reduce bias. If, say, a young white man in Nebraska can read about a Black woman in Iran and feel connected, that’s what I want this book to do. It’s about building those connections. As long as we think of things as foreign or exotic, we don’t feel connected to it; we don’t care as much. But once you start to see it as someone similar to you, you feel a connection. That’s how we start to shift how people see the world. To shift how people treat each other. To shift how people travel. It’s really by increasing that connectedness across humanity, across color lines, across gender, across nationality, across ethnicity, all of it.
Your book was published by National Geographic, which is a highly influential brand. What does that mean to you?
National Geographic carries an undeniable amount of weight in the travel space. So to have that stamp on this book means that the travel canon is forever changed. It paves the way for other people to come into the brand and do something similar because the book shows that it’s important to have these voices.
What has the response been like?
I’ve been screenshooting things because I don’t want to forget this time. For example, this morning, a woman sent me a message that read, “Can I just say, this book is such an inspiration for all women to go out there and do what everyone says they can’t. Thank you for providing a glimpse of joy and possibility in a time full of heartbreak and fear for women.” And it just meant so much to me, because people are feeling joy. Some people are feeling empowered and inspired. And I think people are already thinking differently about the world, so it’s just incredible.
You penned an opinion piece for AFAR in February 2020 titled “What Traveling to Every Country in the World Taught Me About Race.” A lot has changed since then, so I’m curious if your opinions have since changed at all?
Most people are good. I will still stand by that. Most people are not racist, or misogynist, or homophobic. It’s a minority that is really loud and trying to divide us for their own purposes. Despite everything that has happened since I wrote that article, I don’t feel differently. Even with everything that’s going on, I won’t let all of it lead me to believe otherwise, because that’s not my experience. I think if we really sit in our real life experiences, we’ll see most people treat us well. And I hope that we treat most people well.
No pressure, but what’s next?
Honestly, I’m really just trying to be present. It’s such a big deal to publish a book, and I’m just loving it. I’m doing a book tour, so I’m loving meeting people and hearing about what the book means to them. The audio book comes out in July, so I’m excited to have that in the listener’s ears. We did add some extra things to that, for example, for each of the 100 countries, I say welcome to the country in that language. We have a TV show in development, so hopefully, I’ll be able to share more about that down the line. But for now, I’m trying to enjoy this moment.
Thank you so much for your time, Jessica. Is there anything else you’d like to share?
I would like to mention, please read the book cover to cover. It can be tempting to jump around to certain countries, but if you read it cover to cover, there is a really beautiful narrative that won’t come through if you’re reading randomly. You’ll really see how the journey affects me if you read it in order.
>>Next: Black Travel Is Not a Monolith