Social media fuels the misleading impression that if a story doesn’t exist online, then perhaps it does not exist at all. We interviewed Ms Woni Spotts, a 55-year-old African American entrepreneur and, by her own account, possibly the first black woman to travel to every country in the world. Her remarkable achievement, until now, has remained hidden from the headlines. We share excerpts from an interview she granted us on May 6, 2019.

NOTE: Unless otherwise stated, all images are owned and were provided by Woni Spotts.

Images by Pam Patterson from Pixabay

“Hello! Can you see me?” a soft-spoken voice asked from somewhere in cyberspace as our video conferencing technology played catch-up.

Eventually, Google Hangout’s pixellated blurriness gave way to reveal an immaculately dressed black woman. Wearing a white blouse (from her photos, white seems to be her favourite colour) and some light jewellery, she sat upright, almost regal in her poise. Positioned behind her were two large and beautiful bronze coloured vases that would not have looked out of place in a grand palace.

Woni looked slightly nervous, seemingly questioning the wisdom of this whole encounter.

“Hello, Woni. Yes, we can see and hear you clearly,” we responded.

Eulanda and I tried to hide the incredulous look in our eyes as we glanced briefly at each other. No words were needed but our thoughts echoed the same thing, “This person actually exists!”

 

Finding the ‘First Black Woman to Travel To Every Country in the World’

A few days earlier, we had come across some press releases claiming that a certain Woni Spotts had recently achieved the goal of being the first black woman to travel to every country in the world.

The press releases described Woni as an African American woman who had begun travelling in her childhood and who had recently completed her quest; it took her almost forty years to achieve this.

Woni Spotts Kazakhstan | First Black Woman to Travel To Every Country in the World

Kazakhstan

 

“Could this really be true?” we asked each other.

Knowing from experience not to believe everything we read online, our curiosity was tempered with caution.

Our scepticism also stemmed from our knowledge of a well publicised, ongoing record-setting attempt by travel entrepreneur and influencer Jessica Nabongo to become the first black woman to travel to every country in the world.

Since Jessica, 35, first announced her ambition in early 2018, her story has received extensive coverage by many major media outlets including Conde Nast, CNN, BuzzFeed and Good Morning America to name a few.

“Surely these organisations, with their vast research resources had done their due diligence before going to press,” we concluded. Woni’s claim couldn’t possibly be true.

But here’s the catch. If they, like us, all relied on social media (she has no significant online presence) and sources like the Guinness Book of Records for validation, they would never have found Woni Spotts.

Until recently, Woni was, by choice, literally invisible!

The press releases and a YouTube video about Woni were not effusive in the manner typical of such announcements on social media. There are few details about her other than an email address (and more recently a Twitter account). The whole persona looked vague.

We are not investigative journalists but our in our curiosity, we decided to follow the digital breadcrumbs to see where they led.

We sent a speculative email…and Woni responded!

 

Meeting Woni Spotts

“I never really linked travel to being public and so I don’t have any experience in it,” Woni said, in response to our question on why she had almost no online profile.

Her shy and modest demeanour would be a recurring theme throughout our interview.

Woni Spotts Tanzania | First Black Woman to Travel To Every Country in the World

Tanzania

 

In our own bid to track her down, her lack of a visible online presence had fuelled suspicions that she didn’t exist. At a point, we concluded that the ‘Woni Spotts’ persona was probably created by a mischief-maker or a bot.

“Oh, I’m very real!” Woni declared, laughing when we recounted this to her.

Born in 1964 to Roger Hamilton Spotts and Betty Spotts (nee Mosely) in Los Angeles, California, Woni lived briefly on the US East Coast before eventually settling in Santa Monica where she currently lives and works when not travelling.

She identifies as a black woman. A DNA test (which she shared with us) identified traits from Khoisan tribes in Southern Africa as well as tribes in the Chad Basin. The test also indicated some Iberian/European ancestry.

Woni’s earliest travel experiences as a child were with her parents. Both entertainers, Roger (songwriter, composer and accomplished saxophonist) and Betty (professional pianist, singer, songwriter, and dancer) travelled the world with their music and their little girl.

“I remember many trips to the Caribbean and the Philippines in those early days,” Woni said. “I remember being in Japan and demanding a burger. Everywhere looked like a hotel to me.”

Sadly, Roger died in 1998. Her mother, Betty also passed away in 2002. Woni was their only child.

 

The travel bug strikes (1979 to 1982)

While in high school, Woni decided she didn’t want to take the conventional route by immediately proceeding to college like her peers.

The opportunity to explore a different path presented itself when a family friend, journalist, author and screenwriter Nolan Davis (1942 – 1988), enlisted her help as a researcher for an ambitious project he had conceived.

Woni Spotts Greece | First Black Woman to Travel To Every Country in the World

Greece

 

Nolan wanted to gather material from every country which he could use in a documentary and prospective book. Woni was the perfect candidate. She had already developed a keen sense of adventure, thanks to her many travels as a child with her parents who by then had separated.

With a small crew consisting of ‘Two Black Guys with a Camera’ (as they described themselves), two pilots and a chaperone (sometimes her mother or father’s girlfriend), Woni says she began an incredible travel experience that would see her visit almost 160 countries during her teenage years.

She describes the entire enterprise as being audacious in concept but low budget in execution. For example, in West Africa, she recalls that at the time, some of the destinations had no hotels. She recalls staying with local families in houses where rooms had no doors.

“That’s when I became a [little] diva,” she laughed. “I came from a big city and wasn’t used to staying in places where anyone could just walk in.”

She recalls being too young to party with the adults while travelling but mentioned that her travel ‘crew’ knew how to have fun on the road. “Those guys went hard, partying to The Four Tops and others when we travelled in Eastern Europe in the 80s!” she said, with a wry smile playing on her lips.

Did she remember her trip to Nigeria (my home country)? I was curious.

“I was little more than a child at the time and don’t recall many details from those trips but I do recall Lagos. It was busy and hot!”

“It still is!” I laughed.

Inevitably, the rigour of travel began to take its toll on a young Woni. Her enthusiasm for the project began to wane. 

“A lot of the countries were a blur and the trips were starting to get too close together. It wasn’t really optimal travel in some of those places. The way it was structured, we went to a lot of places that didn’t have [recognisable] landmarks to stand in front of to say, ‘This is this or that place’.”

“We went to a lot of countries that didn’t have developed tourism the way they do now. I would like to revisit some of those countries as an adult and gain a whole new perspective.”

Nolan sadly passed away before the project could be completed. The documentary titled “Passing Through” was never widely released (we couldn’t find it online) and Woni sadly has no access to any of the footage.

NOTE: When we enquired about passport stamps for that period, Woni informed us that she, unfortunately, no longer had her passports from the ’70s and ’80s. She, however, invited us to reach out to the US State Department if we wanted to see proof of her exit and entry records.

 

Back to reality and back on the road again (2000 to 2018)

After filming stopped, Woni says she was faced with the reality of returning to an ‘ordinary’ lifestyle – college, boyfriends, and decisions of what she wanted to do with her life.

But she says her wanderlust never died and she resolved that someday, she would travel to the remaining countries she didn’t get a chance to visit while working on Nolan’s project.

Woni Spotts Switzerland | First Black Woman to Travel To Every Country in the World?

Switzerland

 

Her dream was to travel with her future husband… “But that never happened,” Woni said, “I never met anyone who was interested and so I just ended up not going and all the while feeling unfulfilled.” Neither her family nor friends were keen.

Woni went into business and focused on other projects. The travel lull continued up until the mid-2000s when she began some intermittent travel, ticking off countries in southern Europe from her list during that time.

“I realised I was getting older and that if I didn’t go to those places [I hadn’t been], I was never going to go. I was tired of looking at the pyramids in documentaries and so I said, ‘That’s it! I’m going to Egypt. Egypt or bust!’”

That was the reboot she needed to get back on her quest to visit every country and continent in the world. Rather than wait for anyone else, she found encouragement through joining organised tour groups (she speaks very highly of companies such as Jacada Travels and Abercombie and Kent). 

Soon, she was embarking on expeditions to Antarctica, joining ‘round the world’ trips and enlisting the help of local tour guides in countries where no organised tours were available.

Between 2014 and 2018 she visited her last 33 countries. At age 55 and 40 years later, she had visited 195 countries and 22 territories. Woni completed her quest on September 28, 2018.

Subject to verification by more qualified organisations, Woni is possibly the first black woman to travel to every country in the world.

 

Was record-setting ever her objective?

“I didn’t realise counting countries was a ‘thing’ until I recently came across a story of another black woman (Jessica) who said she had the ambition to become the first black woman to travel to every country in the world.”

That was when Woni said she felt compelled to set the record straight.

Woni Spotts Spain | First Black Woman to Travel To Every Country in the World?

Spain

 

By this point in the interview, we had already established that Woni had no active social media presence.

“Didn’t you want others to know of your achievement?” we wondered.

“I don’t really do sharing like that,” she replied.

She describes herself as a private person who never really caught on to social media. She went on to explain that the people in her life didn’t really care about travel. Many of them already thought she was a bit weird for wanting to visit all these strange places they had never heard of. 

When she realised she was sitting on a possible record, she says she reached out to the Guinness Book of Records to enquire if anyone had already claimed to the title of the ‘First Black Woman to Travel to Every Country in the World’. They couldn’t provide any information to back that claim.

NOTE: We asked if we could see images from her travels in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Woni explained that the images had unfortunately been lost over the years as the family moved from place to place.

 

We needed more proof…

Woni gave us permission to reach out to a friend of her family, Ms Niva Ruschell, for further corroboration. Niva responded at length, providing detailed knowledge about Woni and her travels. Here is an excerpt from Niva’s email to us (full email available upon request).

“I’ve known Woni for over 40 years. She’s the daughter of my dear friend, Roger Spotts. It is with great pleasure that I share with you some of the travel stories Woni related to me.”

“I have been well aware of Woni’s extraordinary lifetime of travels. Her quest to see the world has been both positively awe-inspiring and fascinating to me. She has regaled me over the years with many colorful [sic] accounts of her adventures….” (she goes on to list many travel stories about Woni).

“…So you see, over the years I have vicariously travelled to these exotic and amazing places with Woni and I can attest to the authenticity of her claims.”

“Thank You for giving me the opportunity to confirm Woni’s travel experience and if you have any further questions, please feel free to contact me.”

Woni also shared this award from the Traveler’s Century Club.

Woni Spotts Travelers Century Club

Certificate of achievement awarded by the Travelers Century Club

 

Social media and the erasure of stories that exist

Surprise! Surprise! Some people do not exist on social media. But they exist nonetheless!

Before the advent of print, many cultures across the world passed down their history and legends through oral storytelling. Writing and print may have transformed our recorded history but that didn’t make the existence and impact of oral traditions and less true.

Throughout history, cultures invaded by other cultures had their stories wiped out or entirely rewritten after being defeated in conflict. A quote famously ascribed to the late South African singer Mariam Mekaba says, “The conqueror writes history; they came, they conquered, they write. You don’t expect people who came to invade us to write the truth about us.” 

Those who control the media, control the narrative.

Woni Spotts Italy | First Black Woman to Travel To Every Country in the World

Italy

 

Fast forward to the digital age and new ways of storytelling. In this age, there is a tendency to believe that if a person or story is not online, then they don’t exist.

In this age, there is a tendency to believe that if a person or story is not online, then they don’t exist. Click To Tweet

The subjectivity of social media has been a constant revelation on our own travels. We’ve met random people, especially from older generations, who have recounted some truly remarkable travel achievements which left us asking, “Why aren’t they shouting about this from the rooftops?”

But the truth is that they don’t need to. Many people simply prefer the peace that comes with anonymity. They do not seek the attention, affirmation and adulation that social media brings.

Woni says she never felt the need to talk about her travels publicly. Social media certainly didn’t exist when she travelled as a teenager. But does that make her claim less authentic or her story less noteworthy? 

Carol Cain, a public relations professional and travel blogger summed it up nicely when she writes, “Social media is no excuse for the erasure and ignorance of history and other people’s accomplishments.”

 

Does black travel need ambassadors?

Our unequivocal answer to that is YES! Diversity in travel media is a cause we are proud to get behind.

We celebrate every person of colour who, through their travel experiences and stories, are challenging stereotypes, changing narratives and inspiring many others to boldly go and explore our world.

Jessica’s notable quest to visit every country and continent in the world is one driven by a similar cause.

In several interviews, Jessica talks about many unsatisfactory experiences on her travels, especially with US immigration. She’s passionate about ‘normalising travel for black people’ and getting people used to seeing black travellers in spaces considered non-traditional for people of colour.

“We’re just trying to see the world like everybody else…I’m trying to put a face to those people who look like me, to help immigration around the world know that we [people of colour] just want to travel to,” Jessica said in a March 2019 interview with ‘Bring Me’ (an arm of BuzzFeed).

As black travellers who have ourselves experienced racial profiling many times, we totally subscribe to that objective. The more the world sees us, the harder it becomes to demean, ignore or erase us.

Woni Spotts Scotland | First Black Woman to Travel To Every Country in the World?

Scotland

 

Woni, on the other hand, explained that her interest in travel has nothing to do with wanting to prove anything to anyone. However, she’s quick to highlight that if she can travel the world in her 50s, anyone else can do the same.

Both women have powerful messages based on what they have achieved. We consider them both ambassadors and feel that they are both assets to the ‘black travel universe’. There’s room at the table for more.

 

Who gets the ‘crown’ of being the first black woman to travel to every country in the world?

“So what do you think about the controversy that’s likely to follow when your story comes out. You do know about Jessica’s mission to be the first black woman to travel to every country in the world don’t you?” we asked.

“Oh, I’m already getting some backlash about this whole thing,” Woni said, referring to the hostility we’ve seen towards her on social media. 

Woni painstakingly explained that she had no intention of speaking out previously but felt that she now had to. She feels it is important to speak her own truth. All she wants to do is to put her own story out there and to set the record straight. 

“I don’t want the spotlight. Jessica is a very visible face of black female travel. That’s fine. I don’t want to be that.”

Jessica Nabongo has built a whole movement around her goal to travel to every country and continent in the world and will no doubt achieve her objective before long. We wish her every success.

 

What’s next for Woni Spotts?

Were we not restricted by time, we could have chatted with Woni for much longer. 

She comes across as someone you would meet for a coffee and end up spending hours with, listening to many juicy travel anecdotes. Like the time she turned up in Mongolia more recently and heard ‘black music’ (she remembers Earth, Wind and Fire specifically) playing on the radio.

Woni Spotts Iceland | First Black Woman to Travel To Every Country in the World

Iceland

 

Although now occupied with her business ventures, Woni says she’s not done with travelling.

Acknowledging that her early travels on the documentary project didn’t give her a chance to truly experience many of the places she visited, she said, “The last 30 plus countries I’ve been to have been all about seeing the world MY way. I want to go back to many places in Africa. I want to sail down the Omo River in Ethiopia. I want to visit Lapland!”

“In all my travels, I’ve never been anywhere that didn’t have something of beauty.”

 

Our final thoughts

We’re not investigative journalists and therefore do not have the skills, time or resources to be able to fully validate claims to the title of ‘the first black woman to travel to every country in the world.’ We’ll leave that task to the New York Times’ of this world with deep pockets and benches of interns.

However, we believe Woni’s account and felt that it was important to put her story out there and give voice to her equally remarkable achievement.

Woni Spotts Greenland | First Black Woman to Travel To Every Country in the World?

Greenland

 

We live in a world that judges people based on their looks, popularity and how loud they shout. Social media amplifies all of that. But is online visibility really a true measure of success and achievement?

We live in a world that judges people based on their looks, popularity and how loud they shout. Social media amplifies all of that. But is online visibility really a true measure of success and achievement? Click To Tweet

The fact that Woni hasn’t got any significant social media presence, talk less of hundreds of thousands of followers, should not negate the existence of her story nor stop her from speaking her truth.

Black travel needs more ambassadors…whether they are record setters or not.

 

Have your say!

What do you think about this story? Share your comments below.

Also, read another interview with Woni by fellow travel blogger Gabby at PacksLight.com.

Co-Founders & Curators at HDYTI

Eulanda & Omo Osagiede are London-based freelance writers and award-winning social influencers who run the popular travel, food, and lifestyle blog HDYTI (Hey! Dip your toes in).