My name is Olivia.
I document my adventures in Madagascar as a Peace Corps Volunteer, with the mission to share culture and empower others through my writing.

A Peek Inside My Malagasy Wallet

A Peek Inside My Malagasy Wallet

When it comes to the market, very special relationships exist. There is the tomato lady on the corner, who always makes sure I get the reddest, healthiest-looking tomatoes. She handpicks four tiny tomatoes out of the dozens lying neatly in pre-arranged clusters and places them in my straw market bag. I hand her a wrinkled, dirty ariary note and she reaches into her bag behind her to hand me two extra tomatoes – a gift for being a loyal customer, I suppose. I continue down the sandy aisle, in search of onions. I kneel down to be eye-level with the next seller who sits behind her produce, lined up carefully on a cloth on the ground. “Ino ty hiviliagne, Vola?” What do you want to buy, Vola?, she asks me every day, even though my daily shopping list never changes. I buy one tiny onion from my onion lady, hand her a wrinkled, dirty ariary note and am on my way. 

Near the end of the produce aisle, spanning just five meters along the sandy center of town, I spot a tall pile of lettuce. I ask how much for one bundle and the sellers and I chat about what I am making for dinner. I suggest a lower price and I get a giggle from the lettuce ladies. A vazaha (foreigner) haggling for some vegetables in Malagasy always gets a laugh. 

Before I return home, I stop at my rice lady. She asks me what rice I like better, Malagasy rice or vazaha rice (as she calls it). She insists that the vazaha rice has less rocks and she pours four heaping kapoaka cans into my bag. I hand her my wrinkled, dirty ariary and wait for change. After digging through her bag, she apologizes, admitting that she doesn’t have enough change. She offers the remaining money in form of candy: two colorful fish candies in place of 100 ariary. I agree to this substitute – it is equivalent to $0.03 after all. 

Even in one of the poorest countries of the world, Madagascar’s money, known as ariary, plays an important part in its culture. From the hands it has traveled through, to the onions it has bought, to the pictures depicted on each note, Malagasy ariary tells a unique story.  

100 ariary ~$0.03 USD

This is the smallest value of paper money in Madagascar and the bill that I use most frequently. On one side of note is an image of Antsiranana Bay, located at the northern tip of the island. Its volcanic-looking island protruding from the harbor can identify this popular tourist destination spot. The harbor protects the city of Antsiranana, also known as Diego-Suarez, from the Indian Ocean. 

Flip it over and you’ll see two images very unique to the island. In the background is the image of a limestone rock formation, known as the Tsingy de Bemaraha Strict Nature Reserve. Located in the west of Madagascar, the Tsingy was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1990 for its mangrove forests, unique geography and impressive range of wild birds and lemurs. To the left is the raviinala tree that can be found across Madagascar. It is also known as the “traveler’s palm” for the many purposes its leaves can serve to a wandering traveler. Its broad leaves can build a roof or they can serve as an umbrella during a sudden rainstorm. In the case of emergency, there is water stored in the base of each leaf. 

For 100 ariary, I can buy one onion, a fried banana or a bundle of lettuce. 

200 ariary ~$0.06 USD

On the 200 ariary note is an image of the aloalo, a prominent icon from the southern region of the country. These wooden poles are carved with intricate designs and placed on top of kibory or tombs. Usually featuring zebu skulls and spears, the aloalo tell a story about the dead. The other side shows a stone gate that was used to protect many villages in the Highlands of Madagascar. Prior to French colonization in the late 1800s, Merina royal families used these large gates to control their land and people. The entry to each village could be sealed every night with the use of a big stone disk, known as a vavahady

For 200 ariary, I can buy a small watermelon, coffee with milk or a small pile of charcoal. 

500 ariary ~$0.15 USD

On one side of the 500 ariary note is a Malagasy artisan weaving a basket. The art of weaving is a very common profession among Malagasy around the country. The most common items made and sold at the markets are straw mats, known as tihy, hats, bags and baskets. 

The reverse side shows a few zebu, a type of cow that populate every region of the island. Due to the animals’ high resistance to high temperatures, they are often found living in tropical countries. They are easily identified by a large hump in the middle of their shoulders. Zebu are used to pull sarety, wooden carts used for transporting materials, food, as well as people. When a zebu is killed, Malagasy make use of every part of the animal’s body. Especially in the south of Madagascar, artisans craft knives, sandals and other household items from the horns and skin of zebu. 

For 500 ariary, I can buy an egg, a bar of soap or five bananas. 

1000 ariary ~$0.30 USD

On the 1000 ariary note you will find Madagascar’s most iconic animal: the lemur, or gidro. Along with two species of lemurs on the bill is the image of a turtle, sokake. The turtle holds a special significance in the southern culture and are protected in the Androy region of Madagascar. In other areas of the country, turtles are eaten and sold internationally for their shells. 

The other side has a picture of the many species of plants found on the island. Featured on the bill are the sisal plant (a species of agave) and cactus, two very prominent plants in the south of Madagascar. Sisal plants have strong leaves that are used for its strong fibers. Many people find many purposes for its leaves, from string to constructing shade for sprouting trees. Because about 90 percent of all plant and animal species on the island are endemic, Madagascar is known to be a biodiversity hotspot. 

For 1000 ariary, I can buy a large pineapple, three cups of rice or ten bon bon katra, peanut candy bars. 

2000 ariary ~$0.61 USD

On the 2000 ariary bill, you will see a typical landscape of Madagascar: the rice paddies. Rice plays a very important role in Malagasy culture and is eaten at every meal of the day. For most Malagasy people, even in the south where rice must be imported from other areas of the country due to the dry conditions and inability to grow rice, the staple food is considered to be the main dish. Vegetables and meat are usually considered as laoka, or side dish (and in much smaller quantities). Madagascar is among the top 20 rice producing countries in the world. 

The opposite side shows the endemic baobob trees. Some tribes in the country see the trees as the link between the living and their tribal ancestors. The Avenue of the Baobobs in the west is a popular tourist destination. 

For 2000 ariary, I can buy a beer, three cups of white beans or two packets of spaghetti. 

5000 ariary ~$1.52 USD


You can find Madagascar’s southern beach town, Fort Dauphin on one side of the 5000 ariary bill. A very popular tourist destination, the town is unique for its complexity of landscapes – from its beautiful coast to towering mountains to pine and palm trees. 

The other side features a traditional Malagasy boat that many fisherman still use in the coastal regions of the island. 

For 5000 ariary, I can buy a dress at the “frip” or second-hand clothing markets, a taxi brousse ride to my banking town or fifty small onions. 

10000 ariary ~$3.03 USD

This is the largest bill in Malagasy ariary. On one side, the original Queen’s palace is featured, serving as a reminder of the former kingdom of Madagascar. The royal building sits on one of the highest points in Antananarivo (the nation’s current capital) and served as the home to the many kings and queens that ruled the island between the 17th and 19th centuries. In 1995, a fire destroyed most of the buildings in the royal palace complex. Today, the stone structure still exists and remains as part of the skyline of the country’s capital. 

Turned over, the image trucks and cranes symbolize the process of developing Madagascar as a nation. As one of the world’s poorest countries, there is a lot of concern regarding the construction of roads, schools, hospitals and other infrastructures, paired with the politics that go along with the development. Many parts of the country still have buildings dating back to French colonization and roads that are barely accessible to cars. People of the Androy region insist that there is a prejudice between the nation’s capital and the southern region of Madagascar, resulting in lack of funding to build up the severely underdeveloped area. The image of the bill, however, serves as a reminder of the progress being made as Madagascar makes steps to becoming a more developed and stronger nation. 

For 10000 ariary, I can buy two liters of fresh honey, phone credit to last me about two weeks or a hamburger and fries in the capital. 

Going to the bank

 Madagascar has two main banks: Bank of Africa and BFV. In many big cities, it is common to see lines of people waiting outside of the bank, either to get inside or to use the ATM. They will often wait for hours and sometimes be required to return home before accessing their money, as the bank frequently runs out of money. Unlike in America, if your bank card is misplaced or stolen, you cannot get a replacement the same day. The process could take months. 

On each note, you will see its equivalent in francs printed next to its amount in ariary. Though ariary is the official money of Madagascar, many Malagasy have a hard time letting go of the Malagasy franc, an artifact of the French colonization, even though ariary replaced the franc officially in 2005. At many large markets, sellers will often tell you the price in francs, while using French numbers. It takes many, repeated attempts to get them to make the conversion to ariary and to repeat the price using Malagasy. 

Photos courtesy of fellow PCV Michael Kunkel, who was impressively able to find the cleanest ariary I have ever seen. Check out his blog at


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