Photo Credit: Courtesy of Woni Spotts
If You Don't Post It, Did It Really Happen?: The Dilemma Surrounding The First Black Woman To Visit Every Country
Written by: Ianthia Smith
In the age of social media, we’ve relied heavily on documenting everything we do in order to prove we actually did it. If you didn’t take that photo, upload that video or send that tweet, how would anyone know that you traveled to those destinations, had that idea or encountered those experiences? This has become the dilemma surrounding Woni Spotts, the overnight sensation who recently grabbed headlines after it was revealed that she was the first known Black woman to visit all 195 countries in the world; most of which took place long before social media documentation became the norm.
It was a quiet Sunday afternoon. I pulled up a chair, grabbed my pen and pad and got comfy for what I knew would be an intriguing chat. I was prepping to interview Woni. A shy, soft-spoken voice appeared on the other end of the line.
“Hello,” she said, almost in a whisper.
It was immediately evident that she didn’t like the spotlight, nor interviews, like this one; even though she admitted to fielding what seemed like hundreds of them over the last several weeks.
The 55-year-old’s incredible journey of visiting every country, continent and about 22 territories in the world took off like wildfire once the news broke. It’s a story she says she’s been forced to keep secret for decades, simply because no one wanted to listen.
In today’s world, where views on travel have drastically changed, where every ticket booked, every flight is taken, every mile counted, and every country seen is recorded and shared on social media; Woni says that has just never been her reality.
But Woni’s story is one worth looking at. Her 40-year travel journey started when she was just a teenager. Her parents were musicians who traveled the world and oftentimes took her with them. However, the start of what would be the catalyst to her spotlight today started when she was around 16-years-old when a friend of the family, fate and flight miles collided.
“Around 1979 a friend of my father’s, Nolan Davis, was doing a documentary and he wanted someone to go to each country and report back to him,” Woni explains. “He was a writer. Initially, I just went along for the ride because I wanted to do something other than high school; I was having a hard time in high school and I wanted to delay college, so I just went.
“I was allowed to do it because my mother thought it was educational and I’d be going with people they trusted. I kind of was angry with my parents at the time too because they’d gotten a divorce so they were basically kissing up to me.”
Between 1979 and 1982, Woni visited about 165 countries with her team, creating the documentary, “Passing Through.”
Whether her parents, the filmmaker or she knew it, Woni’s life was being set up for the history books; but she admits that she doesn’t remember much of how any of it happened.
“He (Nolan) was really going through my father to set up all the travels and where we would go next and how we would get there,” she explains. “It was a lot of letter writing. People don’t remember the days when even phone calls were limited. There was a lot of writing and going to the post office to get stamps and I had a Polaroid camera. There was no Internet so there was really no way to properly document and share every single photo and moment. I didn’t have that.”
In early 1982, Woni says the project screeched to a halt and the team eventually ran out of money and enthusiasm forcing everyone, including Woni, to get back to reality. After Nolan died, she says a new team took over the documentary, but that was the last she’s heard of it.
“So I got back to California and then my father said, ‘Ok, you have to do something, you have to enroll in school.’ So I just got back into regular life; boyfriend, working, going to school and I ended up starting my own e-commerce business,” the world traveler adds.
So, she settled into a humble, normal life. The travel bug never left her though and Woni says she’d always think back to her globetrotting days and wonder what was left for her to see.
A first attempt at re-energizing her love for travel happened in 2005 when she says she journeyed to France on a long stay visa; hanging around the Mediterranean, soaking in the weather and architecture. But soon after France, timing and a language barrier forced Woni back to the United States, her hunger for travel in tow.
“I came back home and started thinking, ‘I still haven’t seen this and I still haven’t seen that.’ Then I got into another relationship where the person wasn’t interested in traveling and finally when that ended I said, ‘I have to still do this.’
“One day I was online searching and I ran across this lady who said she was going to be the first Black woman to see the world. Well, I said I only have 15 countries to go and she had quite a bit to go and at that point, I just said well, ‘I am going to go to these places, it was something I always wanted to complete. So I wasn’t country counting I was going to places I wanted to go.”
Travel writer and blogger Jessica Nabongo’s story has been widely circulated, long before Woni’s story was published, Jessica made it her public mission to become the first Black woman to visit every country in the world. She created a viral campaign video, was interviewed by several major publications and gave herself 13 months to accomplish her mission. But it seems Woni may have quietly beat her to the punch.
Woni says that she officially made it her mission to check off every country on the map and she did exactly that between 2014 and 2018.
The certified globetrotter said once she returned home she again came across Jessica’s story, but this time, she realized it was time to tell her own.
“A friend of mine said, you’ve done this and you’ve gone to all these territories and you’ve gone to every continent, why don’t you say something? I said well, ‘I don’t know what to say. I’ve never talked to anybody about it.’
“So we got together with a company and worked out how many territories there were. They’re supposed to be the gold standard of travel and we figured exactly out how many territories I’d gone to; based on their count I did go to all of the countries and I went to all the continents for sure. So after I got an application from them, I filled it out and they looked over my passport stamps and looked at my background and they said, ‘Ok we’re going to say where you’ve been to every country in the world.”
Her accomplishment has been certified and verified by several travel organizations including Travelers’ Century Club.
Her story was soon made public and immediately she was exposed to a world she says she never knew existed. Woni says the media attention, the memes, the online trolls and strangers questioning if she even existed have all come as a shock.
“I didn’t anticipate all of this activity, I really didn’t,” she said nervously laughing. “I didn’t even know this community existed; I saw a couple of Black girl travel groups but I didn’t know the community was so large, to be honest. I also couldn’t believe that people thought that my life, my travels weren’t real unless I was showing it to someone.”
“I didn’t know this was a thing because back in my time only a couple of people were interested in anything travel related. I’d tell my family and friends that I just got back from China and they would ask me why I went there. So those conversations never happened and I never thought they would. Honestly, the conversations with the people I knew were about what kind of car we would get, getting a house; it was very much not talking about travel unless you were talking about going to the Caribbean for a vacation.”
Woni says sharing her story has come with many highs, lows, and a crash course in how much value people place on what they see, or don’t see on social media.
In an effort to prove her validity, Woni shared photos and videos of her passport with me; showing off stamps, certificates she’d been given, and actual receipts to prove her travels.
“I guess they would discredit Amelia Earhart then,” she said. “So many people have traveled all over the world, like Josephine Baker, my own father’s friends were dancers and entertainers and they actually lived all over the world and you can’t find any of those people on social media. They’ve lived overseas all their lives, but life goes on outside of social media. Some people just don’t post.”
The easygoing, mild-mannered Woni says the initial shock of it all has already worn off, adding that she’s beyond inspired and happy to see so many people traveling the world and opening themselves up to new cultures and ways of life.
Even with all of the backlash and accusations of her story not being true, Woni says she refuses to be bullied into becoming more active on social media.
“I’m still going to keep it very low key,” Woni adds. “I really don’t know what to do because I still feel the same way; why would I post these pictures of myself? I didn’t take glamorous pictures, they’re just vacation pictures. I didn’t plan to model and it feels like I’m competing against people who have professional equipment and I would automatically fail and lose.”
“When I was traveling I wasn’t thinking that way. I have three photos of me in Monaco, that’s it, but I was there though.”
So what was the country that put the final jewel in Woni’s “I’ve seen every country in the world” crown?
“Turkey was the last country,” she exclaimed. “It was Turkey. I flew into Turkey and then I went to Greece, Italy, and Spain and then flew back to Turkey.
“At this point, I did do a count of the countries I’d been to and I realized that some of them I’ve revisited. I visited Spain before and living in California, I went to Mexico a number of times. I’ve visited Italy a million times, so some of them I didn’t see properly and had to go back and see again.”
Woni says even after accomplishing this major feat, she still has more flights miles left to go.
“I’ve been to Japan but have not seen all of it, so there’s plenty of stuff to do,” she said excitedly. “Believe me, we could do this until we’re 100-years-old and still not run out of stuff to do!”