The Zebras Of La Paz, Bolivia
Now we have all been known to do a bit of dressing up ….. oh what do you mean you haven’t? Best start this intro again.
When it comes to travel blogs on South American countries the last thing I expected to receive was an article about the good folk of Bolivia dressing up as the Zebras of La Paz to help people cross the road in the highest capital city in the world – however here we have it and I think it’s blooming great!
Serial blogger Caroline Joyner from The Travel Counsellors completes her blog trilogy on Bolivia with this remarkable story of the good this group of people are doing in one of the busiest, poorest and craziest cities in South America.
Enjoy this story of the Zebras of La Paz
Turning Traffic Chaos Into A Positive
Squinting in the high altitude sunshine of downtown La Paz, Bolivia, my lungs struggle and all my senses are assaulted at once. Business men whizz past homeless people begging, colourfully dressed Cholitas sell their wares from stands, shoeshine boys wait hopefully on every corner, and the noise of omnipresent beeping is almost deafening. Just for a moment, I think I spot a zebra amidst the chaos. Not a real zebra you understand, but someone dressed up in the full furry zebra suit.
Sure enough, there are a group of people dressed as zebras in the middle of the manic El Prado thoroughfare. Some are dancing to music blaring from a speaker, some are talking to pedestrians and one seemingly suicidal zebra is in the middle of a road with a lollipop guiding people across the street.
No Ordinary Zebras of La Paz
These are no ordinary zebras and this is no ordinary initiative. In a city which hosted over 9000 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. Traffic signs are considered a guide, accident statistics deadly and crossing the road an art form.
It is the city’s faded zebra crossings which inspired one of Latin America’s most forward-thinking urban groups. The Cebras De La Paz were formed in 2001 and initially aimed at educating 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 3 other Bolivian cities.
The Best Foot Forward
As a non-aggressive form of traffic intervention, the Zebras of la Paz can often be seen ticking off disobedient drivers, but it is their absolute positivity which makes them such a loved part of the city’s commuting force. Waving, stopping to hug children, high-fiving pedestrians: their jollity is endless.
“The role we have is to change and improve how everyone is thinking”, enthuses Christian, a zebra who bounces around La Paz’s busiest intersections from 7am-11am every day. “You need to see the positive side of everything and it’s up to us to put our best foot forward”.
The Zebras Of Peace
Underneath the stripey suits though, this is about more than road safety. Each zebra is selected from organisations who work with at-risk youths. Young people are given the chance to form friendships, learn, and take on responsibility. Many of them were previously on their way down less positive paths such as drug addiction or youth offending.
After 2 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 and desire to help. Each zebra is paid a small stipend, but perhaps worth more is the access to training courses and classes they earn aimed at improving their opportunities. Zebras can now be found leading education programmes in schools on topics such as bullying and conservation.
Las Zebras de La Paz conveniently translates as “The Zebras of peace”, and now visitors to one of Latin America’s least peaceful cities can join them in spreading peace and love via the Cebra Por Un Dia scheme.