Traffic zebras tame the manic streets of La Paz
discovers the unusual way that young people in Bolivia are earning their stripes
Squinting in the high altitude sunshine of downtown La Paz, all my senses are assaulted at once. Businessmen whizz past homeless people begging, Cholitas sell their wares from stands, and the omnipresent beeping is almost deafening. Just for a moment, I think I spot a zebra amid the chaos. Sure enough, there is a group of people dressed in full zebra suits in the middle of the manic El Prado thoroughfare. Some are dancing to music blaring from a speaker, others are talking to pedestrians. One seemingly suicidal zebra is in the middle of a road with a lollipop guiding people across the street.
These are no ordinary zebras and this is no ordinary initiative. In a city that had over 9,000 traffic accidents in 2015, crossing the road here really is a case of taking your life in your hands. The roads are choked with vehicles vying for every inch of space, and traffic signs are considered a guide only.
It is the city’s faded zebra crossings that inspired one of Latin America’s most forward-thinking urban groups, Las Cebras de La Paz. Formed in 2001, they educate both pedestrians and drivers, encouraging them both to obey traffic
signs. Starting with just 24 zebras giving out leaflets, the “Educadores Urbanos Cebras” (Zebra Urban Educators), have now grown to a group of 400 in La Paz and three other Bolivian cities.
As a non-aggressive form of traffic intervention, the zebras can often be seen ticking off disobedient drivers, but it is their positivity which makes them such a loved part of the city’s commuting force. Waving, hugging children, high-fiving pedestrians: their jollity is endless.
“The role we have is to change and improve how everyone is thinking,” says Christian, a zebra who bounces around La Paz’s busiest intersections from 7am to 11am every day. “You need to see the positive side of everything and it’s up to us to put our best foot forward.”
Each zebra is selected from organisations that work with at-risk youths. Many of them were previously on less positive paths such as drug addiction or youth offending. After two months of training in road safety, citizenship and “the spirit of being a zebra”, they are let loose on the streets spreading their unmitigated positivity. Each zebra is paid a small stipend, but perhaps worth more is the access to training courses aimed at improving their opportunities. Zebras can now be found leading education programmes in schools on topics such as bullying and conservation.
Las Cebras de La Paz translates as “the zebras of peace”, and now visitors to one of Latin America’s least peaceful cities can join them in spreading the word via the Cebra Por Un Día scheme.