This part of my life usually never gets shared unless someone asks but in the spirit of vulnerability...
As I reflect over the last 10 years, I remain in awe of travel and its impact on my life. Once I made the decision to teach myself Spanish and leave my corporate job at Pepsi in 2012 to solo travel from the northern most country in Central America to the southern most country in South America, I entered a new realm of possibilities. Since then, I have travelled to over 100 countries, and currently serve as CEO of my own company, Jelani Travel.
But my story begins with my matriarchal lineage. Only a few generations removed from chattel slavery in Mississippi did my granny find herself in East St. Louis, Illinois looking for a way out of poverty while pregnant with my mom at 15. Her escape would be the Air Force-- and this decision would be the catalyst for removing a critical layer of predisposed poverty for our family. Years later, when my mom had me at 19, she also struggled; and decided to join the military in search of financial stability. Little did I know, the intentional decision-making from my maternal line would serve as a distinctive foundation for my life.
Early childhood memories resembled visiting my grandparents at 7 years old in Adana, Turkey where they were stationed for duty. I can remember actively learning how to count to 10 in Turkish so that I could play hide-and-seek with the kids next door. A few years later, my mom was stationed in South Korea where I experienced core teachings that have shaped the woman that I am today. Having the opportunity to see so much of the world at such a young age motivated me to break the family cycle of teen pregnancy and become the first to graduate from an HBCU. It also showed me early on what privileges I had as an American; despite the oppression of institutionalized systemic racism. These global experiences strengthened my capacity for empathy and drove me to want to help others. Travel instilled in me a thirst for knowledge and a deep interest in exploring more places to connect with more humans--because at the core, it is our humanity that binds us.
Yet after experiencing a plethora of travel experiences in my young adult years across Europe, Asia, and South America; the media and its stereotypes of the African continent were thriving in keeping my interest in visiting the Motherland at bay. I could conceptualize that all the places they named couldn’t be as bad as the news outlets made them out to be, but I also couldn’t fully imagine that I could travel there because there wasn’t the safety net of a military base nearby, or a personal human reference point. The only movies about Africa I’d seen were of war and famine; and even if I could mentally break through all of the propaganda, could I actually afford it?
Fast forward to age 25: I became fast friends with a Kenyan family who owned a restaurant in the neighborhood where I worked. They told me how amazing their home country was and invited me to join them, stating I would only need to buy my flight. Not knowing my deep love for travel, they were shocked to learn I purchased my ticket the same day.
My experience in Kenya was transformational, eye-opening and life changing. It was at that moment that I knew I would never be the same. I had finally experienced my Black birthright and it was Black is King in every way. Not because Kings and Queens were adorning themselves and lining the streets in gold; but because I embodied that magical-feeling that’s hard to explain until you have it for yourself. That connected-to-the-earth-feeling of pure joy as you bask in a sea of beautiful Blackness, digest fresh food, and listen to music that your soul has somehow heard before. The subtleties that I had been deprived of in the US flooded the commercials and billboards throughout Nairobi-- and seeing myself reflected back was a gift to my subconscious. The fact that I had made it this far and got to be in this place was revolutionary.
I knew before I left Kenya that I would return to the African continent, and bring people with me. I couldn’t keep this experience to myself--especially after what it gave me. One year later, Jelani Girls was born and I took my first cohort of girls to Ghana. Two years later, I created a similar experience for Black women and called it Jelani Women Travel. When the pandemic emerged, we evolved Jelani Girls to encompass work with boys and girls in a different capacity and renamed our charity Jelani Gives. I knew that travel saved me and I wanted to create experiences for Black people that helped them re-imagine their own greatness-- hence, the word jelani. I firmly believe that when we change the way we see Africa, we change the way we see ourselves. And how we see ourselves is at the core of the revolution.
It has been 10 years since I found the courage to step out on faith and do something I hadn’t seen anyone else like me do; and it’s been incredible to witness the Jelani brand continue to evolve. I’m proud of my personal and professional growth; of the team I continue to build, and of the lives I have had the pleasure to touch through the emancipatory experiences of this movement.
In the spirit of evolving, we have some new destination offerings in Africa and across the Black Diaspora. We’re also thrilled to debut a brand refresh with our website logo and name--let us know what you think in the comments below👇🏾. We are Jelani Travel and we make Africa travel easy with curated vacations for the culture. Travel saved me in my younger years and it is the gift that keeps on giving. I’m so grateful for the journey God has put me on, and I am excited to see where the next 10 years will take us.
Cheers to more courage, more liberation, and more joy! To celebrate this milestone, come travel with me in the paradise filled island of Seychelles in East Africa this Labor Day and use our special discount code when you sign up for our email list at GoJelaniTravel.com. And while you’re there-- check out our website refresh for other new travel destinations and information on how I can design a custom made trip for Y-O-U and your crew!
Ashley N. Company
“Fly” Girl spreading #BlackGirlMagic across 100 countries and counting. Headwrap lover. Fierce Protector of Black Lives.