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Who Wants to be a Malagasy Millionaire?

I used to be completely addicted to the TV quiz show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? I was totally sucked in by the drama, the suspense, the soap opera of it all. But unlike half of the Western world, I had no desire to be a Millionaire contestant. Because I'd already been a millionaire. In fact, I could be one again.

All I'd have to do would be to go back to Madagascar. The Malagasy franc isn't worth much: it takes thousands to buy a single US dollar. A million francs, when I was there, was worth about $160.

So what, you're thinking; that's just a quirk of the currency, like the lira.

Except Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world. The average income is 25 dollars a month. So a million francs is six months' income for most people there.

As a visitor in that kind of environment, it's really difficult to manage your money, because the local price structure doesn't match the tourist price structure. Sure, you're only paying five or ten dollars a night for your hotel, but by local standards that's a fortune. You have to watch how much cash you carry around, because more than five bucks is going to be too tempting to muggers.

But unfortunately, travellers' cheques don't come in $5 denominations—as my wife and I came to regret.

We were in a small town in the south, and needed more cash; we were down to our last thousand francs or so. So we went to the bank. When we walked in, everyone was looking at us: the rich white tourists.

We went up to the teller. "Bonjour, monsieur; acceptez-vous cheques du voyages, s'il vous plait?" "Oui, bien." I got out a $100 travellers' cheque and signed it. The teller slowly, methodically examined my passport, stamped the cheque, typed out a receipt on a typewriter, handed it to me, and directed me to the cashier to pick up the money.

We lined up behind the locals. A scruffy old lady was counting out filthy 500 franc notes worth less than a dime each. Handling money in Madagascar can be a health hazard. You can get a tropical disease for only nine cents.

Then it was our turn. I handed the cashier my receipt. He studied it carefully... paused for a moment... looked rather embarrassed... and said, in his French-speaking Malagasy accent, "I 'ave no monnaie."

So we were standing there, thinking, "Man—it's a bank, and there's no money. We've just blown a hundred bucks. They've stamped our cheque, so we can't re-use it. And we still don't have any money. What are we going to do?"

Meanwhile, the cashier had left. He was conferring with the manager; then they both disappeared out the back. We stood around feeling edgy and embarrassed.

After a few anxious minutes, they were back. It turned out they had to go to the safe to get our hundred dollars' worth of francs.

The cashier came back over and counted it out: over 600,000 francs in 25,000 franc notes worth about four dollars each, stapled together in batches of ten.

Everyone in the bank was watching this. I walked away from that counter feeling like an Arab sheik carrying a dozen bars of gold. While walking down a dark alley. Under a spotlight.

At that moment I realised that if you want to be rich and famous, forget about getting a job with a Silicon Valley start-up; forget about being a rock star.

Just go to Madagascar and change a hundred bucks in a small-town bank. By local standards, you will be rich—and believe me, everyone will look at you.

A reworking of a performance piece from 2000 for the Madagascar News, February 2004.

Walk Back West