The Bones of the Body Politic: Thoughts on the Savorgnan de Brazza Mausoleum


This essay examines three examples of political treatment of the dead (specifically their bones) in the Republic of the Congo: the return of the remains of its capital’s founder, Savorgnan de Brazza; the disappearance of the body of André Matswa, hailed by the people as their messianic ‘saviour’ guardian; and finally, the treatment of unidentified victims of the various armed conflicts that occurred during the years 1990–2002. These events can be analysed through the prism of two different historical perspectives: in terms of the moyenne durée, the treatment of Matswa’s bones paved the way for the subsequent occurrences by creating a precedent; in the context of the ‘present of history’, the construction of a Brazza mausoleum is contemporaneous with official denial of the presence of human remains scattered across the capital city of Brazzaville as a result of armed conflicts. The comparative analysis of these historical configurations posits a set of circumstances whereby the bones become a symbolic buttress of the capital. The historical puzzle here is to understand how that which came together in claiming Matswa’s bones becomes, in the context of democratization of the regime, an aesthetic sense of the ‘beauty of death’ as expressed by people when they see the shrine as their country’s finest architectural accomplishment. Through the splendour of the monument, this aesthetic sense articulates the denial of the presence of the nameless dead.