You might expect to smell gumbo cooking at a gathering in Mandeville rather than the pungent aroma of traditional Nigerian egusi soup, but it wasn't only the menu that was unusual Friday. So were the people there to eat, sing, dance and celebrate: 100 mostly middle-aged Nigerian men.
They were gathered at a campground meeting hall where Mayor Donald Villere declared May 19 as "National Association of Seadogs Day" in Mandeville. The organization is holding a conference in Mandeville this weekend.
Founded in Nigeria in 1952 by seven college students, the National Association of Seadogs, which operates "like a fraternity," according to member Thony Nnadi, is an all-male Nigerian group whose main mission is raising awareness for causes of social justice.
The group, also known as the "Pyrates Confraternity," has a nautical theme. The various chapters in Nigeria and around the world, which are made up of Nigerian expatriates, are known as "decks," and the group’s logo is a skull and crossbones.
The longhorn deck, a Texas-based chapter serving the southern United States, was in charge of hosting this weekend’s conference.
Nnadi, the deck leader, or "capoon," decided he wanted to hold the conference in Mandeville, a place he felt suited the group’s nautical theme.
"Louisiana has a lot of sea. We are Seadogs," said Nnadi, who especially noticed all that "sea" driving over "that long bridge."
Ken Enali, a Texas-based doctor originally from Nigeria, believes Nnadi made a good choice in holding the conference in Mandeville.
"This pretty much had a good all-around feel. It had everything we needed," Enali said. "The park is unique, too. People and the tourism group have been very receptive."
Villere said he never would have imagined seeing such a group in Fontainebleau State Park during his time as mayor.
He had never heard of the Seadogs until members reached out to the St. Tammany Parish Tourist and Convention Commission, asking to hold a conference in Mandeville.
"From Nigeria? All the way to Mandeville?" Villere said. "I’ll tell you what — it’s certainly a first."
One of the chief organizers of the event was Zondra W. Jones, senior sales manager at the Tourist and Convention Commission. Jones served as a go-between for the parish and the group after it expressed interest in coming to St. Tammany.
"He (Nnadi) liked Fontainebleau State Park, so he reached out to the Tourist Commission, and I ended up diving in and helping them organize," Jones said. "I’m very excited. It’s a unique event. It’s a unique area, so I’m so glad they came to St. Tammany."
Nnadi said the conference serves as an opportunity to talk about important issues facing Nigeria and the world.
"You’ve heard of Boko Haram that kidnapped some kids in Nigeria?" he said. "We went out there and talked about it. I think they’ve released 82 of those girls. So these are the kind of things we’ve fought for."
While Villere and parish organizers may remain somewhat puzzled about the group's decision to come to Mandeville, a comment by Enali perhaps shed some additional light on the group's reasoning.
"The weather is just lovely," he said of the 89-degree, sunny, humid conditions.