Bolivians dress as zebras for traffic duty in congested streets of La Paz

Latin America

Bolivia’s administrative capital is one of the most congested in South America. But for more than 15 years, young people dressed as zebras have helped ease the traffic flow.

CGTN’s Dan Collyns donned a stripey suit for some first-hand experience in this report.

Zebras are running wild in the streets of one of the world’s highest cities. It’s not a bizarre dream, and they’re not real zebras.

It’s not uncommon to see these zebras on their hind hooves amid the traffic. CGTN wanted to be part of the herd, but joining it is not as easy as it may seem. As reporter Dan Collyns found out in his induction, being a zebra is about more than dressing up like an oversized soft toy.

It’s hot and hard to see inside the zebra suit. People treat the zebras differently, and are quicker to smile than to frown. For children watching, it must seem like a character just walked out of a cartoon.

Cebritas, as their affectionately known in La Paz, are part of a 17-year-old program aimed at making the streets more civilized, mostly for pedestrians young and old. Police officers directing traffic simply don’t generate the same good vibes as a person dressed in a striped-suit. That’s the point, says zebra Daniel Osorio.

“If we put ourselves in the shoes of the other person, we learn. We learn to connect with that person. We say: ‘Good Day Sir,’ you can learn and you change. Instead of going on the attack, we use good humor and a little irony to teach them how to change through using good values,” Osoriom explained.

Being a friend to all also helps the ‘cebritas’ become better citizens. Many of them come from troubled homes. To work part-time as a zebra, they have to have a life plan. Most are studying for professional careers, but many students jump at the chance to be a zebra for a day. Some even dress for the part.

Despite their natural association with zebra crossings, the zebra program was developed in Bolivia’s de facto capital city, La Paz, says project manager Veronica Puerta.

“It’s been successful here in La Paz because it was such a chaotic place with lots of traffic, where nobody respected the rules of the road,” Puerta said. “That’s how it was born; to help put some order, and that’s why it’s been successful during all these years.”