She's trying to be the first black woman to visit every country

CNN/ Newswire | 4/26/2018, 1:39 p.m.
Some people set records by jumping the highest or running the fastest.
Jessica Nabongo

An American African in Africa

And despite being a self-identified African, that didn't mean everything was smooth sailing when Nabongo traveled around Africa.

A few times, she watched in frustration as she was forced to wait behind white tourists or forced to pay bribes in order to cross borders that should have been open to her.

"The discrimination that I faced in South Africa was ridiculous. Not only from white South Africans, which many would expect, but also from black South Africans," she says.

However, some countries were better than others: "Senegal, it's amazing. You don't see them privileging white people over Africans. They treat everyone the same. Same in Ghana."

Adding to the challenge of seeing the world is the fact that Nabongo often travels solo. She generally eschews Airbnbs for hotels, where she can count on a 24-hour front desk to keep her feeling secure. She prefers to bring friends along to share the experience when possible.

The unelected ambassador

Sometimes, though, the tables turn and Nabongo finds herself abroad speaking on behalf of Americans. This is particularly likely in countries that have warned their citizens against traveling to the United States or have concerns about gun violence.

"While I've been abroad, I've had people ask me about how safe is the US, especially for people of color," Nabongo says.

"And you know, I have to tell them, 'Yes, there is a high risk for you in particular in urban areas. But then also in rural areas because you're a minority.' It's a very strange and difficult thing to navigate."

Still, comments and questions like those only emphasize the importance of Nabongo's work.

While she does not identify as an activist, sometimes her mere presence is enough to make a difference or cause a person to see things differently. This is a common sentiment echoed by many women of color: Simply being who you are is a statement.

Whether counseling a person of color who's afraid to travel or a local who thinks it's okay to try and touch her head without asking, Nabongo serves a cultural ambassador role that may not be visible behind those colorful shots she posts on Instagram.

Speaking of Instagram, Nabongo has some words of caution for travelers who use African people as objects, props or backdrops in their photos, something she encounters way too often online.

"Instagram is great. I love it. It's obviously given me a platform so that I can educate people about different places in the world," she says.

"But it's also a very dangerous and disgusting place as well because a lot of people want a bigger following. They want the likes. They want pictures that go viral. So they're willing to use anybody and anything."

"We cannot negate the optics of whiteness in Africa. We can't," she says.

Ultimately, Nabongo's quest isn't just about crossing countries off a list.

It's about changing the perception of female travelers, of travelers of color and of anyone who doesn't have the option of passing for a local in a given community.

"Racism is a thing. There's nothing we can do to get around that. History has made it that way. I exist as a black person in this world and I'm not going to let that hinder me from going anywhere I want to go. Namely, everywhere."