“Wait, what is a Woni Spotts?” It was my thought when I first saw her name associated with being a record setter.
I saw a Twitter thread by black travel bloggers referencing a blurry picture of a woman named Woni and saying that she was the first black woman to visit every country.
As a black travel influencer myself I'm usually aware of what's happening in travel—particularly the black travel space. I was confused because I'd never seen any stories, social media posts, or photos about a woman named Woni attempting this.
It's also somewhat well known in my field that an influencer named Jessica Nabongo—@thecatchmeifyoucan on Instagram—is currently on a quest to be the first black woman to visit every country. Her journey is so publicized and well-documented that it made it feel like she already had the title in my mind, and I'm sure in the minds of others. How could it not be factual when her journey has been endorsed by publications like Bloomberg, CN Traveler, CNN, Forbes, and the New York Times?
I want to note that I am not an investigative journalist, but simply an interested black traveler and content creator instilled with the responsibility to—when in doubt—always ask for the truth firsthand.
And if true, her story would definitely shake the black travel community’s table.
Tracking Woni's online footprint (which is non-existent)
I Googled her name and the first result appeared to be a self-published article by Woni on a site called PR Newswire on April 26, 2019. I saw a few copies of that same article on sites such as BlackPressRoom, BlackHistory.org, The Charleston Chronicles, and Yahoo! Finance, but no interviews or original recounts on any notable publications.
The next Google result was an IMDb movie listing. I followed the links until I got to a bio for the main actress and producer credited in the film, Woni Spotts. Her IMDb bio is as follows:
Woni Spotts' parents are Roger Spotts and Betty Spotts. Woni was born in Los Angeles and she went to school on the East Coast. Woni is an accomplished musician, songwriter, piano player, and animator. Woni decided not to follow in her family's entertainment footsteps instead deciding to explore the world on multiple solo tours. Woni is an avid traveler, visiting every continent, country, and locations of interest such as Antarctica, Easter Islands, The Galapagos, Polar Regions and more. Woni traveled to various countries as a child but decided to visit every country completing this goal in Sept 2018.
This confused me—with 165 countries listed as the filming locations, at first I thought it was an odd yet effective way to keep track of the countries she'd visited. The fact that the film had a limited release in 1989 was a small red flag to me as well.
Had she been pursuing the goal of visiting every country in the world since she was a young girl? Was this all an actress' publicity stunt for 15 minutes of fame?
I needed to ask for myself.The first official interview with the First Black Woman to Visit Every Country, Woni Spotts! Conducted by digital story-teller and fellow traveler, Gabby of @packslight. Click To Tweet
Getting in touch with Woni
I had first seen reference to Woni Spotts on Twitter, so I looked there. Low and behold she'd made a Twitter account and begun sharing her story publicly and interacting with interested fans. So I DMed her and asked her if she'd be alright with a few questions, and she agreed.
I was going to send her my questions via email but as I wrote them I realized it would be a lengthy and probably timely reply on her part, so I took a chance and offered a 10-minute call instead.
To be honest I wanted to hear her voice and her tone over the phone to get more of a feel from her— to validate that she was real, but also to hear her tone and get a first-hand experience of who she was as a person. If she was authentic, she had such a unique story and seems to not be very social media friendly or showy as a person which is odd in 2019.
To my great surprise, the next thing I know I was getting a call from a California area code. I grabbed my recording device and answered the phone to hear a lovely woman (yay, not a 13-year-old boy!) reply to my tentative “Hello?”
10 minutes turned into 45 minutes as I listened to her story. Apparently, I am the first person to interview her and write an extended piece about her, so she had a lot to share!
The interview: what did she say?
For the sake of sharing this huge story in a digestible way, I've transcribed the actual interview with Woni into its own blog post which you can read here.
In summary: She begins with the reason she got involved in travel so early in her life. She told me she visited nearly 160 countries while she was still a teenager, which aligns with the number of film locations I found in the 1989 IMDb listing which she confirmed she starred in.
We then talked about the rest of her life story and why she decided to resume her journey to visit every country after a long hiatus. She says she officially completed her journey more than 6 months ago on September 28, 2018, and received verification by the Traveler's Century Club (an organization that verifies if people travel to 100+ countries) at the end of April 2019. She tells stories from her favorite trips, what safety is like for a black woman around the world, and what travel means to her.
I also ask her what she plans to do now that she's finished her global journey—spoiler alert: she wants to travel more!.
Again, you can read the full transcription to get more intimate details of Woni's personality and life story.
Why doesn't she have a social media presence?
In 2019 it seems impossible to not have a social media presence. I think all of my grandparents follow me on Instagram, and even my great-grandma sends me the occasional emoji. So why doesn't Woni have any, and why didn't she document her trip?
Firstly, though it may seem like the new normal to share every sunset and selfie on social media, it isn't like that for everyone. Some people enjoy the peace and privacy of anonymity. Some people enjoy travel for travel's sake and don't see a reason to document the experiences when they could be living them.We have this new thing where if it's not on social media we think it didn't happen. Click To Tweet
Also, Woni was an only child growing up throughout the 1970's and 1980's, traveling the world having it documented for her on film. It's possible that she had a taste of the limelight and as social media grew she was already desensitized to the high that we all feel when we get likes on photos.
For as many people choose to abstain from social media because they have no interest in it, there are as many these days consciously choosing to abstain and detoxify from it. Social media “clout” and a desire for instant gratification are known as the biggest faults of these most recent generations.
So when we think about how much of a media and ego obsessed society we are, can you really blame her?
Where is her proof? How can we know she isn't simply lying?
The YouTube video she created for family and friends not only travel photos but shows a host of scanned, official-looking documents including:
- A certificate of Woni Spotts crossing the Drake Passage and visiting Antarctica in 2014 (6:27)
- A certificate of Woni Spotts crossing the Equator in Ecuador (6:33)
- A certificate of someone crossing the International Date Line in 2014 (6:37)
- What seems to be a small plaque saying she flew by private jet from Orlando, FL to Siem Reap, Cambodia from Jan 1-24, 2014 (6:42)
- and finally, a Certificate of Gold Status for visiting 200+ countries and territories, given to a Woni Spotts on April 19, 2019 by the Traveler's Century Club (6:49)
The video also shows actual photos and passport stamps detailing travel to the following countries in their respective years:
- 2005: France (multiple)
- 2014: Jordan, Australia, Tanzania, India, Cambodia, Samoa, Ecuador, Antarctica, Morocco, Peru, Chile
- 2015: Kazakhstan, Mongolia, China
- 2016: Belize and Bolivia
- 2017: London, Ireland, Switzerland, Greenland
- 2018: India, Turkey, Spain, Greece
These stamps aligned with the timeline she gave me of her life and travels. She directly sent me photos of her passport with stamps in them, wet signature copies of her certificate visiting Antarctica and interaction with the Traveler's Century Club.
Update (05/16/2019): Woni has shared with me that she has a journal with noted from most or all of the countries she's ever traveled to. She is planning ways to share this information with the public via interviews, essays, and perhaps a book in the future.
Like most, I was skeptical about Woni's claims too when I first started my research on her. A lack of online presence for 40+ years, her very unusual story, complete lack of media coverage, and seemingly random emergence all raised red flags of a publicity stunt or fame seeker.
But I talked to her myself. I asked her hard questions and drilled her about details that even a great liar would have a hard time making up on the spot. Though I am not an investigative journalist, she provided in my opinion very sound explanations for her lack of social media presence and seemingly “sudden” appearance on the travel scene in recent years.
Truth be told in an age of social media misdirection and photoshop, I think even if she did have a picture of herself from every country and blast it all over social media people would still claim she's lying.
From what I've pieced together online, her narrative, my first-person encounter with her, and her official certificates she's sent me directly, and her unique yet sensical explanation for how she visited all of these places over a span of 40 years, I will say I believe that she is the first black woman to visit every country in the world.
Wait… If she appeared then there could be others, right?
“…To her knowledge!”, as she will tell you herself.
The media has gladly jumped on the hype of Jessica's pursuit to be the first black woman to visit every country. But we've now seen it's very possible for a black woman to visit many countries without social media exposure, sponsors, or country counting. It is possible there is another black woman who's previously accomplished the same feat simply without telling anyone.
But Woni has a strong claim to be the first confirmed black woman!
To the skeptics, she openly welcomes journalists to come to her house, to call the tour companies she used (listed in the credits of her YouTube video), and to ask her any questions they have. I think her openness and conviction also give credibility to her claim.Plenty of people are racing to be the first XYZ to visit every country in the world. Well, this woman is likely the first black woman to do so. And also the first to do it—gasp—with ZERO social media coverage. Click To Tweet
So… what does this mean for Jessica Nabongo (@thecatchmeifyoucan)?
That was one of my first thoughts as well and, yes, Woni and Jessica know of each other, and Woni and I did discuss her feelings about it in detail for 15 minutes of our 45-minute call.
Does Jessica still have a claim to the title because she's accumulated the excitement and press for it? Has she or will she publicly acknowledge Woni's claim to be the first black woman to visit every country in the world, will she deny it, or attempt to ignore it? It's a complex situation for sure and Jessica may be blind-sided by Woni's sudden appearance, as I know I would be.
Though I have not met Jessica I do follow her on Instagram and feel like I know her personality from her media. It seems that her platform is based on education and inspiration and is very positive, so I'm confident whatever response she eventually has will be as well.
The black travel community has to stick together! And in any event, two beautiful, inspiring black women touching all corners of the world is a win for all the entire black travel community all day long, and that‘s the message we should trumpet.
Why should we even care? Are figureheads like Woni and Jessica even necessary in travel?
Yes. Even if you don't agree or understand, the answer is YES.
The Negro Motorist Green Book (you know Green Book, that recent movie starring Mahershala Ali?) is exactly why it matters. The Green Book was an annual black travel guide for African-Americans during the Jim Crow Era, with travel tips and recommendations for lodging and business that were black friendly.
The idea of Woni traveling to every country is important to me, and many black people, because of how regulated black bodies and our physical movement used to be.
Black, African-American, and biracial travelers used to be refused from white-owned businesses and restaurants, denied repairs their vehicles while traveling, refused accommodation by white-owned hotels, faced unlawful arrests, threats of physical violence, and forcible expulsion from sundown towns.
We used to be banned from water fountains, let alone able to leisurely travel. Traveling is freedom that we haven’t been able to enjoy for a very long time.
The fact that a black American woman could not only go beyond our borders, but touch the border of every country and territory currently on this planet for the first time, is a huge feat. Not physically but emotionally, symbolically, of how far we have come as African-Americans and black people.The fact that a black woman could touch the border of every country and territory in the world for the first time is a huge feat. Not only physically but emotionally, symbolically, of how far we've come as Black Americans. Click To Tweet
And so, now people finally know:
Woni Spotts, an American woman from Los Angeles, California, traveled over a 40-year period and now stakes her claim as the first known black woman to visit all recognized 195 countries in the world, and 22 territories!
You can follow me on Instagram @packslight for my own black travel story and to ask any questions. Again you can read Part 2 of this story, the actual interview, right here.
Share this record-setting achievement with a friend by sending this article to them or sharing it on social media so Woni can get the global recognition she deserves.
Drop a comment below with what your initial reaction is, let's chat!
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[…] I’ve since learned Woni Spotts was the first Black woman to travel to all the countries, and did it about a year before Jessica. There’s some back and […]
How was Woni’s conversation with Jessica? I saw a Twitter posts between the two
Yooo! This is a great way to start the day!
First, I am super happy that a fellow classmate and peer was the one to unearth this in an official capacity! This is super dope!
Secondly, WOW! Black woman are so freaking amazing. I’m just inspired all over again to travel as much as I can. I learned so much new information in this first blog post and can’t wait to read the next.
“We have this new thing where if it’s not on social media we think it didn’t happen.” — so true.
It’s crazy to think that we automatically are skeptical of Woni has accomplished just because it isn't readily available to see on social media. Then there are so many Instagrammers that are photoshopping themselves into places they aren’t actually visiting.
Thank you for putting a spotlight on this incredible woman!