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What Traveling to Every Country in the World Taught Me About Race

By Jessica Nabongo

02.03.20

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Less than 300 people have traveled to every country in the world. 

Photos courtesy Jessica Nabongo

Less than 300 people have traveled to every country in the world. 

I'm often asked what I consider the safest countries for black people or the most welcoming for black travelers. But I can't answer those questions.

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I’ve been traveling internationally since I was four years old. For my Ugandan immigrant parents, vacationing was important—a way to learn more about the world through experience—and they made it part of our lives every year. Whether domestic or international, we went somewhere every summer: Canada, Minnesota, Jamaica, Disney World, the Bahamas. By the time I graduated from high school, I had been to seven U.N. member countries, and in 2008, I moved to Japan to teach English. From there, I continued living abroad, and continued traveling. And in February 2017, with 60 countries under my belt, I started a two-and-a-half-year journey to visit every country in the world.  

Many people ask me what it’s like to travel as a black person. It’s a question that I can’t answer, because it assumes that the experiences of black people are monolithic. There’s a lack of contrast, too—I don’t know what it’s like to travel as a white person. The same goes for gender. I know nothing else. My experiences are simply that: my experiences. 

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Studies show that a fear of racial profiling affects some black travelers’ decisions to travel, higher than concerns about airport fiascoes or terrorism. Many black travelers also want to know what I consider the safest countries for black people or the most welcoming for black travelers. I understand the origin of the query, because of the experience of being black in America. But I never answer that question, either, because I don’t think there’s a clear answer. I just hope that my travels, in their own little way, help to assuage some of the fears that many black travelers have. Because after traveling to every country in the world, what I’ve learned is that the majority of people are good. Most are not racist or misogynist, and the greater part of my experiences have been positive, largely because of the strangers that I’ve met along the way. We should take negative stories with a grain of salt.  

One example: Before traveling to Russia, I posted about my upcoming trip on social media and was messaged by a number of followers who said that Russians don’t like Africans, or black people in general, and that they wouldn’t be welcoming. People inundated me with their negative experiences, but I didn’t allow that to color my perception of a place that I had never visited. Instead, I went in with an open mind and positive attitude, the way I try to visit every country. And what met me upon touching down in St. Petersburg was a kind energy. Though my taxi driver didn’t speak English, that didn’t stop him from attempting to give me a tour in Russian on the way to my destination. He even waited to make sure that I entered the front door of the home that I was visiting before driving off. Not once in the country did I feel uncomfortable.  

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In other parts of the world where people are not as used to seeing black travelers, I was often met with curiosity. While visiting India’s Taj Mahal, one of the modern seven wonders of the world, people lined up to take pictures with me. I had to laugh: Many of them had come from far away to see the majestic building, and there they were, taking photos with me. This was a lesson I’ve found to be true elsewhere: that every acknowledgment of your race is not always racism—sometimes, it’s rooted in curiosity and admiration.  

But racism certainly exists, and there’s always the possibility of encountering it. I have, whether it was the U.S. immigration officer asking for another form of identification because she didn’t believe my U.S. passport was real, or the waiter who clearly didn’t want to serve me at a restaurant in Vienna. Annoying things happen sometimes, but they shouldn’t deter anyone from traveling.

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After all, every traveler, no matter their race, will have a unique experience in any given country—some positive, and some negative. We will all interact with different immigration officers, different taxi drivers, different strangers on the street whom we may ask for directions. And all of those people that we meet will form an opinion based on our race, gender, height, weight, accent, clothing, and nationality, and that judgment will be based on a lifetime of their unique experiences. Just because someone else has had a negative encounter and shares that story doesn’t mean that another traveler will have the same bad experience. My advice, always: Do not allow someone else’s impressions to shape yours. All of us experience the world uniquely, and there is so much beauty in that.  

On October 6, 2019, I arrived in Mahe, Seychelles. It was my last stop on my journey to visit every country in the world, a feat completed by less than 300 people in the world, most of them white men. I can’t tell you what my experience was like compared to theirs. If I had to guess, they probably got through immigration faster than me—a traveler who is African using an American passport, or who dared to cross 45 borders using my Ugandan passport. (I’ve been challenged by immigration around the world using both passports, but in some cases, the Ugandan passport helped me to enter countries that are harder for Americans to access, like North Korea, Iran, and Venezuela.) 

After visiting every country in the world, despite the hurdles that I’ve faced, I can confidently say that anyone—no matter who you are, no matter what you look like—should feel free to travel the world as you see fit. You don’t need permission. You don’t need a blueprint. All you need is a plane ticket and an open mind. The world will be waiting with open arms.

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