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January 9, 2024

Global Citizen

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In 2019, when Jessica Nabongo made her way to the Seychelles, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean, she had crossed a milestone. Many adventurous and luxury travelers count the East African nation as a bucket list trip, however for Nabongo, her visit was something bigger. The Seychelles marked the 195th country she had touched, meaning she had crossed the borders of every sovereign place in the world.
Eleven years ago, Nabongo was based in her Detroit hometown and a pharmaceutical sales rock star. She was also a casual traveler: a trip to New York City here, a weekend jaunt to Miami there. But sitting in her car one fateful afternoon, she began to question everything. “I’m always interrogating every single thing that I’m doing,” she says. “I’m like, ‘Okay, do I really like this? Has society tricked me into believing I like this?’”
That thing was the rigors of corporate life and Nabongo no longer wanting to be tied to one place. She had a big dream: to visit every country in the world. But as a financially savvy executive, she knew that traversing the globe would come at a cost. So she put a plan in motion. Nabongo put her Detroit life in storage and set a course for Japan, where she would teach English. 
In her aspirational 2022 book, The Catch Me If You Can: One Woman’s Journey to Every Country in the World, Nabongo looks back on that pivotal experience in Japan, which she writes “changed the trajectory of my life.” It’s there that living abroad, and then attending grad school at the London School of Economics, would motivate her to continue discovering global cities and immersing herself in different cultures.
Today, the bestselling author and photographer lives in Los Angeles, but she’s never far from a flight to somewhere near or far. We caught up with Nabongo on a rare day at home, recalibrating after her latest trip (which included co-moderating a conversation with Vice President Kamala Harris, on her first tour of Africa. Nabongo was tapped for the job because of her previous experience working for the U.S. government in Rome and a charity in Benin). 
This conversation with Detour ( executive producer Cori Murray has been edited for clarity and length.
WJ: What was the epiphany that sparked your decision to visit every country in the world?
JN: When I [eventually] quit my job, I could because I could write; I had some very clear safety nets; I’m a very good saver and investor. I own property. My mom still lives in my childhood home and if I need to, I can go live with her. For me, that was a pivotal moment in my life. I was raised to believe that the world was a meritocracy. My parents are immigrants. They told me to work hard. Be smart. Go get what you want.
That moment of being in my car, getting the email with my bonus and seeing three digits, I was like, Okay, this ain’t it. Everything that I was told is a lie. This is not it. I went on a winding path. It wasn’t just one moment in the fall of 2007 and I’m in my car at a doctor’s office in Dearborn, Michigan, that I said, “I’m gonna travel to every country in the world.” It took so much to get there. I got there 11 years later and so much happened in that 11 years. But I needed it to happen to even be able to get to that finish line.
I want people to be inspired by my story. I do think there’s a lot of value in starting there and using that as an opportunity to interrogate your life, and then figure out what it is that you do want—but all within reason and all in a way that makes sense for you.
WJ: How has travel enriched and/or changed you?
JN: Travel has taught me several lessons. The two biggest ones being most people are good and we’re more similar than we are different.
On the first lesson, because of my life experiences with strangers, I’ve seen firsthand the kindness of humanity. We’re living in a world that wants us to believe our neighbors are evil and scary, and I don’t believe it. Despite what’s happening, in particular, in the U.S., in particular around race relations, I still am a believer that most people are good. Most people don’t want to murder us.
My desire to travel is driven by my curiosity, seeing how people live all over the world, in particular, after being raised in the United States, being educated in the U.S. and then going into the corporate world, and spending too much money on too many things. I have shifted priorities in my life. I don’t need to get the massive house, I don’t need to have this, have that. I want to have experiences. For my sister’s 50th, I flew my whole family to New Orleans, and we all celebrated together. I’d rather use money for things like that. Travel has shifted my priorities and also my understanding of what’s possible, just from the people that I’ve met, seeing how different people live their lives…
WJ: In your book, you really detail the nuances of how you were able to travel. For example, you found so many flight deals!
JN: I got deals! The other thing I tell people: make sure you’re passionate about the thing that you want to do. That passion is what’s going to drive your consistency. And if you’re just trying to be what somebody else is, or do what somebody else did, you’re gonna get burned out. You’re never gonna reach the finish line because you weren’t doing it from a genuine place. You know when people say, “I’m just doing it for the ‘Gram?” That’s funny, because I’ve been to 30-some-odd countries before Instagram literally existed. I know what I’m doing. I know why I’m doing it. I hope that all of that comes through everything I do, whether it’s the book, whether it’s interviews, even being able to sit down with the Vice President. So much of who I am isn’t because I’m a public figure because of the travel. It’s like, no, actually, I used to work on issues on the African continent. This was my dissertation, and this was my life and my job for five years. All of these elements are who I am and that gives me the opportunity to sit in spaces and have these sorts of conversations.
WJ: Who have been the waymakers in your life?
JN: My parents, first and foremost. When you’re younger, you don’t know about the effect your parents have on you. But I’ve gotten older, and I’ve achieved the things that I’ve achieved, and people are like, “How’d you do it? You’re so brave.” [I tell them it’s] because my parents didn’t create an environment where they instilled fear in me. They didn’t create an environment where I had to be subservient, or deferential to white people. The other thing, on the fear piece, they never said, “These places are scary. Don’t go there.” Lastly, what I love is that they let me quit. In my childhood, starting at age three, I learned piano and ballet. I played the clarinet, percussion. I did softball, basketball, tennis; I did swimming and modeling. There was an acting class and summer camps and all of these things I would sign up for. Then, when I didn’t feel like doing it anymore, I would just quit and they didn’t care. They didn’t make me keep going. I really love that. It speaks to how I live my life, because for me quitting doesn’t equal failure. It just means I tried it, I don’t like it, I’m moving on.
WJ: Outside of your parents, has there been anyone else who has been a waymaker—especially as you have navigated the world?
JN: Honestly, not really. I’m kind of moving at the beat of my own drum. I’m interested in so many things; I don’t have a blueprint. Even now, as I look at the last few months of my life, I’ve become an artist and my work had [a] showing at Christie’s in London. I moderated a conversation with the Vice President and before that, I’d only done it one other time, for Essence. When I look at everything that I’ve done, and I’ve touched, I don’t have a model. I worked at the UN, I worked corporate, I worked for the USA and I worked public sector. I’ve done well at everything. My parents cultivated the world in such a way that it allows me to be the way that I am. If I was waiting to find a blueprint, I’d probably be stuck somewhere.
“Travel has shifted my priorities and also my understanding of what’s possible.”
“If I was waiting to find a blueprint, I’d probably be stuck somewhere.”
“I still am a believer that most people are good.”
This article was originally published in the Fall 2023 issue of WayMaker Journal.