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.