It’s official.

by Juliet Sorensen on July 16, 2015

As a university employee, I am required to document expenses incurred on university business, in order to be reimbursed. In a place like the United States, with its abundance of electronic transactions, this is easy. In places with more informal economies, not so much. For example, the family that cooks for us in the Dominican Republic when we travel there for the Northwestern Access to Health Project charges us a daily rate for that much appreciated service, but has never given us a bill or a receipt. It’s just not the done thing.

Mali is a special case.

Vendors in Mali, from the shoemaker to the café owner, produce more elaborate documentation of transactions than I’ve ever seen anywhere else. On the planet. Every humble place of business has not only personalized stationery, but also – the icing on the cake – its own stamp, bearing name and location, imprinted with official firmness on every bill and receipt.

I’ve eaten meals in Mali where the restaurant has no meat and no other customers, but whatever I do eat is documented with a stamp.

A musical troupe that does health and human rights education with us recently entered into an agreement to perform in five villages around Douentza. This agreement was memorialized with the band leader’s signature – and a stamp.

After a team dinner in Sevare, I received a meticulously itemized bill. I paid the check and afterwards received an apologetic visit from the owner. He had forgotten to stamp the bill; should he rewrite it from scratch? He seemed surprised when I told him that wasn’t necessary.

How this came to be the norm is a mystery to me. Is it a legacy of the French colonial era? Perhaps, but on a recent faculty exchange to Sciences Po in Paris, while I was required to produce elaborate documentation in order to receive compensation there, there was nary a stamp in sight. Is it insurance against those who would gin up phony receipts for reimbursement? Maybe, but surely it’s not difficult to order a stamp that says whatever you want.

Regardless, stamp vendors do a brisk business in Mali, each stamp lending an imprimatur of legitimacy to the act in question. Do they matter? At first, I thought not, dismissing them as a meaningless cultural construct, but I was wrong. In Mali, the stamps are a mark of integrity. And that matters a lot.



Snarki, child of Loki 07.16.15 at 6:56 pm

In Italy, the receipts are enforced by the Guarda di Financia; if they catch you without a receipt for something you just bought, you’re fined the cost, the vendor is fined the cost. I think the reason is to prevent cheating on VAT.

For university reimbursement, Japanese receipts are best: you ALWAYS get one, you can say it’s for whatever you want (no US beancounter reads Japanese) and if they give you crap, the receipts almost always have a phone number: “hey, you want to know what it is, CALL AND ASK!”


MPAVictoria 07.16.15 at 6:58 pm

“In Italy, the receipts are enforced by the Guarda di Financia; if they catch you without a receipt for something you just bought, you’re fined the cost, the vendor is fined the cost. I think the reason is to prevent cheating on VAT”

Wow… I hate getting a receipt for anything less than say $50.


infovore 07.16.15 at 7:07 pm

Company stamps used to be ubiquitous in my neck of the woods (NL). Computerization has largely rendered them and company stationery. But even so, every now and again I encounter a request that some form should be stamped and signed before being returned, or that some document should be submitted on company stationery and stamped. An “Are you kidding me?” inquiry regarding this virtually always yields the answer that a scan of the signed (unstamped) document is perfectly acceptable. So I suspect the stamps in Mali are a legacy of the colonial era, and they’ll go away eventually.

As for what they mean, I’d say they signify that a transaction has been completed and sealed: the service has been delivered and paid for, no take-backs allowed to either side. So the stamps are not about preventing you from creating phony receipts for reimbursement, that’s a different transaction between you and your employer. Instead they are indeed a mark of the legitimacy of the transaction between you and the merchant, and the integrity of the merchant.

All of which makes me wonder about seals, which have a long history. If seals have a history in Mali, then the way stamps are used there might not just be a legacy of colonialism, but instead go back much farther.


infovore 07.16.15 at 7:09 pm

… Computerization has largely rendered them and company stationery obsolete


mdc 07.16.15 at 7:16 pm

At least ten years ago, I noticed Germans absolutely loved stamps. You got a visceral sense of your progress through any bureaucratic hurdle by the tempo of the Stempel. The love seemed deep enough that I doubt digitalization has erased it.


Peter B 07.16.15 at 8:00 pm

As Mozart and da Ponte had Figaro sing, “È l’usanza di porvi il suggello.” It’s the custom to seal a document in an age or place of widespread illiteracy, because a seal or stamp affords a mechanical means of authentication that obviates the need to create or recognize a distinctive signature.


Bruce Wilder 07.16.15 at 8:52 pm

I did business in Los Angeles with a small Italian company and the ritual of stamping fascinated me. Also, we could only do financial transactions during windows of time, when it was possible to fax back and forth to Rome during our exchange. I, too, was told that it was required for VAT, but I never quite grasped what the control was.

I love the image of business life in Mali. Better than being told never to accept an open bottle of water in Hong Kong.


Robespierre 07.16.15 at 9:08 pm

@1&2: “enforced” is a strong word in this case.

Could it be a case of lack of official dispute resolution? Just like keeping one’s word was considered especially valuable when contracts were virtually unenforceable (ie: backward areas, remote areas, middle ages, etc), keeping visible track of transactions could be a way to prevent disputes.


Snarki, child of Loki 07.16.15 at 9:26 pm

“Could it be a case of lack of official dispute resolution?”

When it’s a matter of walking out of a cafe with a gelato, I don’t think that “dispute resolution” is the primary concern.

And yes, that IS/WAS the level of enforcement. I suspect that the idea is that a low-level food vendor that habitually does not give receipts is likely to be fiddling the VAT.

The rigor of enforcement is likely to be strongly correlated with the distance to Sicily, also.


christian_h 07.17.15 at 1:26 am

mdc, that is interesting. When I moved to the US from Germany for grad school about 15 years ago it was very difficult to get the ornate stamps and seals on stuff that US schools seemed to require. E.g. my diploma was just a piece of paper with a signature or two. No seal no nothing.


Sancho 07.17.15 at 3:24 am

What’s shifty about Hong Kong’s bottled water, Bruce?


JakeB 07.17.15 at 3:49 am

There’s a coffee place I know in the San Francisco area owned by an Italian, where they are extremely firm about always giving you a receipt along with your change. I have assumed he imported this habit from his homeland. It is some difficulty to keep that unwanted thermal paper away from me when I get my espresso there.


faustusnotes 07.17.15 at 4:24 am

Japan is big on receipts and if you want an official one for tax purposes it needs to be stamped. There are two types of stamp, your average stampy stamp and a special one that you register with the govt and pay money for, that is really cool. Everyone has a stamp and depending on what you do not bringing yours can be disastrous.

I know of at least one case of a company losing a tender bid because, even though they made the best bid, the staff member they sent to the final appraisal process forgot her stamp. She had to call the CEO to apologize. Most people avoid this problem by having a work stamp that they just always carry with them (and an additional stamp at work that other people can use when they aren’t there!) How this system is better than signatures continues to elude me …


Bill Snowden 07.17.15 at 5:48 am

@9 The Taiwanese use a carrot to ensure retail transactions are recorded and taxable: all cash registers issue a uniform receipt bearing a unique eight-digit number. Six times a year the government holds a lottery drawing. People inevitably win a little money, so everyone expects and keeps a receipt. Of course, this system still misses a lot of transactions—betel nut stands, market stalls, and grandma shops at one end, and (I imagine) bigger-ticket spending at the other—but my understanding is that when introduced it greatly increased compliance, and now it’s just part of the fabric of everyday life.


Zamfir 07.17.15 at 5:49 am

@Faustus, it shows that the company has given someone the authority to approve documents. With a signature, you have the additional question whether the signer is authorized to sign.


Alex K--- 07.17.15 at 10:08 am

In Florence and Pisa this last June, I was given receipts for pay public restrooms. One euro or less per visit — the penalties must be really harsh.

I think it’s a relatively recent development, though, in contrast to stamp-worship. I vaguely remember that one of Po Songling’s tales begins with a provincial governor issuing a decree on the expulsion of evil spirits, who were believed to fear the application of the imperial seal.


J_A 07.17.15 at 11:39 am

Stamps were required to do business when I started working in the mid 80s (my first day of work was the same day my company received its fax machine – it had been telex before). As someone said before, stamps (wet stamp was the official name) certified that the signer had the authority to bind the company. Because they could not be photocopied, stamps guaranteed that the document was original and had not been tampered with.

Because I worked in exports at the time, I travelled abroad a lot, I was given a company stamp that I could use. In my trips, to stamp proposals and purchase orders It was a great privilege for someone in his 20s to be trusted with a company stamp. If lost, anyone could put it on a piece of paper and claim my company had said anything.

If anything, the U.S. Waseven bigger on stamps. I had to prepare a submitted for a bid in Puerto Rico, which had to be stamped in the U. S. Consulate. They didn’t use a wet stamp. They glued a golden metal stamp to it.

Fast forward to 2010, I am a big shot executive in an energy multinational. Our company owns 80% of a local city gas utility in China. We are in a dispute with our 20% partner. He walks into the company’s offices AND STEALS THE COMPANY’s STAMP. It basically paralyzed us. He was holding it in ransom and we had to agree to (for us) outrageous concessions to get the stamp back.


Olivier 07.17.15 at 2:42 pm

Interesting about Mali. I travelled through there about 5 years ago. Transactions did not seem to me to be receipted with any particular fastidiousness. I even took a flight on a light aircraft from Mopti to Timbuktu (sharing space, among other passengers, with a goat – it was Tabaski) without so much as a boarding pass being issued. Is this a recent thing? Now, Cameroon. There’s a place that loves its documentary formalities!


Philip 07.17.15 at 4:13 pm

I worked in the south of Italy for a year and Milan for 6 months and never knew anyone get checked for receipts. You have to take them, even for a 1 euro coffee, in case there’s a policeman passing and asks or there are spot checks but I never knew of this actually happening. It’s to stop VAT avoidance and money laundering by the mafia, but people would still tell you which bars were a front for the mafia so I guess it didn’t work very well. With all the rules they’d bend or just ignore they did stick to giving out receipts though, and there was an EU regulation that came out about uncovered sugar pots in coffee bars and over night they were swapped for sachets of sugar. There was also a regulation that restaurants and bars had to have a smoking and non-smoking are and this was widely ignored, now they have a full smoking ban and it’s pretty much followed. It was always a bit of a mystery to me as to which rules had to be strictly followed.


Will 07.17.15 at 9:41 pm

I have no additional insight into their purpose, but I quite enjoy all the stamps on receipts, and the as often as not the receipts themselves, that I get in Europe. More often than not, they have a lovely little logo which just seems to reflect the pride / uniqueness of the place. As long as they are part of our lives, they may as well be aesthetically pleasing, and they are. In contrast to their counterparts here in the US.


faustusnotes 07.18.15 at 2:24 pm

Zamfir, good point, but if other people are using your stamp because of its lack of authenticity, it kind of doesn’t work, does it?

I was in a country recently – Greece or Turkey, I can’t recall which – where the shops had signs saying that you didn’t have to pay if you didn’t receive a proper receipt…


Andrew Hamilton 07.19.15 at 4:49 am

In answer to the original post, yes, this is a legacy of the French colonial era. Science Po today is not the Science Po of back in the day, when nothing in France was valid unless stamped. Remember that French West Africa became a bunch of independent countries around 1960, when the stamp was still a thing in the metropole. Ça vaut rien s’y a pas tamponné, quoi.

Paper flow can run into problems in illiterate corners of the world. Back in the day, I had to equip twenty or so colon houses for a Peace Corps training program in Côte dÍvoire, which meant buying baskets and light bulbs and pots and pans and corkscrews in the market, with receipts in triplicate to the Corps. For a while I got people to make their sign on scraps of paper, gum wrappers, whatever was handy. Then I figured out that I could just send personal receipts to Paris, saying I bought this stuff, as if I had sold it to myself, and everyone was happy.


Andrew Hamilton 07.19.15 at 5:07 am

Come to think of it, the tampon was such a big deal that people had their own stamps. I was a lycée professor, and we had to grade the kids at the end of the semester and sign off on it. Some of my French colleagues would just stamp the page with their personal rubber stamps. This kid gets eleven over twenty, R. Sclippa, maïtrise, histoire-géo.

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