WILLIAMSBURG — These days, it’s rare for Jessica Nabongo to find herself somewhere she’s never been before.
In 2019, the travel writer, author, photographer and entrepreneur completed her mission of visiting every country in the world. Over the course of 2 1/2 years, Nabongo, who had already been to 60 different countries, completed the list by visiting over 130 more.
So when she made her visit to the Historic Triangle this week, it was a trip to remember.
“I’m not a huge history person,” she said, “but history sometimes finds its way in there.”
During a whirlwind few days’ stay, Nabongo was hosted by William & Mary, where she learned about the Bray School and The Lemon Project, spoke to students and delivered a lecture in Tucker Hall Theatre, speaking in front of a crowd of about 100 people on Tuesday evening.
The audience at the 2023 McSwain-Walker Lecture included students and members of the public, who heard Nabongo’s talk, “Intentional Travel: How Education, Empathy and Confidence will Help You Create the Life You Want to Live,” which focused on her journey and what she’s learned from her experiences.
Before her talk, Nabongo said that the goal of all of her work is “using my storytelling to help reduce bias” and broadening people’s minds and horizons.
Among the lessons she learned during her travels, Nabongo said that first and foremost, education comes in many forms, both in and outside of the classroom. Secondly, there is a lot of power in the power of positive thought.
“I hope people leave (the talk) feeling inspired and in control of their lives,” she said. “I was grateful to my parents who let me start things and quit things all the time. It helped me to know quitting doesn’t equal failure.”
Born in Detroit to Ugandan parents, Nabongo began her career in the corporate world. Upon realizing how unhappy she was with what she was doing, Nabongo decided to quit. After a stint in Japan — her 10th country — teaching English, she bounced around, going from the United Kingdom to Africa to Italy to countries in Central and South America over the next several years.
In 2017, Nabongo began her quest to visit every country in the world. Besides Nabongo, another American woman, Woni Spotts, claims to have been the first Black woman to achieve the feat.
“I believed in possibility,” Nabongo said. “It was a windy path but I’m here now.”
Before this week, the closest Nabongo, who used to live in Washington, D.C., had ever gotten to the Historic Triangle was for a concert in Richmond. Prior to coming to Williamsburg, Nabongo’s initial impression was that she just wasn’t interested in learning more.
After seeing how Colonial Williamsburg and William & Mary have partnered to help tell a more complete story of the history of the city, she said that she was beginning to change her mind.
On Tuesday morning, Nabongo visited the Bray School Lab, located in Travis House in the historic area, where she learned more about the history of the school from lab Director Maureen Elgersman Lee, graduate assistant Nicole Brown, genealogist Elizabeth Drembus and oral historian Tonia Merideth.
The group also visited the site of the Bray School on the corner of South Nassau and West Francis streets, where work is ongoing to prepare to open the site to the public in 2024.
The Bray School Lab is part of the Bray School Initiative, a partnership between The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and William & Mary that seeks to uncover, document, preserve and disseminate the history and legacy of the Williamsburg Bray School.
The school was established in 1760 by The Associates of Dr. Bray, an Anglican charity based in England, at the recommendation of Benjamin Franklin and with support from William & Mary’s president and rector of Bruton Parish Church, the Rev. Thomas Dawson. The school gave Black children a “Christian education” — which included reading and possibly writing, but also encouraged them to accept bondage as part of God’s plan.
Nabongo called her visit to the school “incredible,” emphasizing the importance of inclusive history.
“If it’s not inclusive, it’s not a real story,” she said.
On Wednesday, Nabongo also got the chance to visit Jamestown Settlement, where she toured the museum with Senior Curator Bly Straube. During the tour, Nabongo saw how the area’s three main cultures at the time — English, African and native — were living during the 17th century.
Nabongo stopped several times during the tour to look more closely, checking out the museum’s display that identified stolen African artifacts and a statue of Queen Njinga, who served as ruler of the kingdoms of Ndongo and Matamba, located in present-day Angola.
“There’s a lot here,” she said. “I want to come back and spend more time.”
Sian Wilkerson, email@example.com, 757-342-6616