Two-and-a-half years ago, Jessica Nabongo set out on a mission to be the first black woman to visit every country recognized by the United Nations.
Born in Detroit, Michigan, to Ugandan immigrant parents, Nabongo was no stranger to travel — she took her first international trip at the age of 4. And since then she has lived and worked overseas at various points in her career as an international development worker.
By the time she decided to take up this quest in 2017, Nabongo was already a seasoned traveler and had been to about 60 different countries; now, she has just 20 left to visit to meet her goal. She has shared her journey to 135 countries on her blog, Catch Me If You Can.
The 35-year-old told Global Citizen — from Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of Congo — that she loves learning about different cultures, seeing how other people live, and meeting new people. And she loves sharing that experience with others online. But what sets Nabongo apart from other “travel influencers” on social media is her careful and respectful approach to travel.
“I really want to show other cultures in a dignified way and not through a Western gaze,” she said.
Nabongo previously worked for the UN, and as a black woman and a child of immigrants, she said her perspective on traveling is different from the traditional travel narratives, which tend to be shaped by Western views, centered mostly on the experiences of white men, and veer toward "poverty porn."
“I have family that lives in a village with no running water or electricity, you know, and I don’t want to see my cousin in anyone’s pictures on Instagram. And that changes the way I travel and how I tell stories,” she said.
While many travel influencers share beautiful photos accompanied by a slew of hashtags, Nabongo’s photos on Instagram are thoughtfully paired with educational captions and facts about the place she’s visiting.
“I always said I wanted to be a geography teacher, and, in a way, this is how I’m doing it,” she said.
Jessica Nabongo in Yemen.
Jessica Nabongo in Yemen.
While it’s important to her that her followers learn more about the world through her travels, what she really wants them to know is that the world has a major problem with plastic — something she became aware of more recently as a result of her travels.
While growing up in Detroit and later living in New York City, Nabongo said she never gave a second thought to her plastic usage, but two experiences in particular forced her to wake up.
The first was a trip to Kigali, Rwanda, where plastic bags have been banned since 2008. Nabongo was made very aware of the ban as soon as she exited the plane, when an airport official seized the duty free bag she was carrying. The officer cut the bag open and, to her surprise, returned the bottle of alcohol in the bag, but confiscated the bag itself.
“Rwanda truly is a leader in this space — and it shows because it’s super clean,” she said.
Traveling through Kigali, Nabongo recalled that the streets were clean and clear of plastic, a sharp contrast to what she saw when traveling from Dakar, Senegal, to the Gambia, where she remembered seeing plastic all over the sides of the roads.
But it wasn’t until she visited a beach in Côte D’Ivoire that she decided she needed to speak out against the widespread use of plastic.
Ahead of her visit, people had described the beach as one of great beauty, so when Nabongo finally arrived at the beach she was shocked to see it was littered with plastic waste.
“That was really the first time I was like, ‘I have to do better,’” she said. “I have to talk about this.”
Now, Nabongo doesn’t mind being the one to give a lecture about the impact of plastic toothpicks at the dinner table or embarrassing her mom at the grocery store by carrying all her purchases in her hands when she forgets to bring a reusable bag.
PLASTIC IS DESTROYING THE EARTH!!! This is a picture of me in Nauru. Prior to getting into this water I thought the dark spots were coral or some other underwater wonders to behold. What awaited me were huge piles of plastic bottles. Yup every dark spot in this picture is a pile of plastic bottles. I never considered myself to be an environmentalist, and I still don’t. But what I have seen through my travels is that plastic is one of the biggest threats to the planet, animals, our oceans, lakes, rivers and US!! Just because you don’t see plastic build up in your area doesn’t mean that your plastic isn’t ending up in the shores of another country. Single-use plastic must be eliminated!! For the next seven days I will be doing a journal of my plastic usage and I would like you to join me!!! Next week let’s reconvene and see how much plastic we are using and find ways to reduce it!! Tag your friends to join us!!! #catchmewithlessplastic #banplastic
As an avid traveler, Nabongo said she’s noticed that airlines and hotels are some of the biggest culprits when it comes to recklessly using plastic. During a long-haul flight, Nabongo realized that one person might be given as many as four different plastic cups of water — so now she brings her own cup on flights. And even though flight attendants are sometimes reluctant to let her use her own cup, Nabongo said she insists. There’s something much greater at stake, she explained — the health of the planet.
She plans to up her game by bringing her own cutlery and cutting down on her plastic use while traveling in as many other small ways as she can, like using just one garbage can (and therefore just one bag) in hotel rooms with more than one trash can.
She urges others to take similar steps when they can. When traveling, it’s not always possible to drink tap water, so plastic water bottles may be unavoidable, but Nabongo suggests bringing reusable water bottles and opting to use those when possible. She also encourages people to bring their own soaps and shampoos and reuse those bottles, instead of using the small bottles hotels provide daily.
Plastic waste is just one of many things Nabongo expects to be a major problem over the next 10 years. She is also deeply concerned about the vast increase in income inequality, both within and between countries she’s witnessed, and mass migration driven by extreme economic hardship, which is increasingly becoming an issue in many places. But curbing the planet’s plastic waste problem is one thing that individuals can start working toward even at home through small changes in their everyday actions.
Nabongo will reach her goal and her 195th country – Seychelles — this October. And though she plans to keep fighting against plastic pollution after that, she said her next mission is to unplug and catch up on sleep.