Bolivia: In Andean capital, dancing zebras direct traffic

In La Paz, Boliva, at-risk youth get $57 a month – plus health insurance – for part-time gigs wearing zebra costumes and directing the city's chaotic traffic.

By , Correspondent

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    A traffic zebra helps children cross a busy intersection.
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A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

LA PAZ, BOLIVIA – The streets of the world’s highest capital are a cacophony of sound with the groans and squeals of horns and brakes. There appear to be no rules of the road, as cutting off other drivers, stopping suddenly, and running red lights are a regular part of the traffic flow. The fast-moving chaos creates a dicey experience for pedestrians wanting to cross busy intersections. Enter the dancing zebras.

La Paz’s traffic zebras are a corps of about 100 youths who, dressed in individual, full-body zebra outfits, help schoolchildren and elderly or disabled pedestrians cross the street. They’re also trained in crowd dynamics and street performance.

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The program started in 2001, with 20 zebras, sporting “very ugly” two-person costumes, says Patricia Grossman, director of city culture. But La Paz residents took to the zebras, and their friendly guidance stuck, easing bottlenecks and aggression more effectively than “sanctions, tickets, or coercion,” says Ms. Grossman.

The zebras are part of a broader program for 3,000 high-risk youths, which gives 15-to-22-year-olds city improvement jobs. The zebras work four hours daily, Monday through Friday. They make 400 bolivianos monthly (about US$57) and get health insurance, a good gig for youth considering the country’s monthly minimum wage for full-time work is near 650 bolivianos (about $93).

“It’s fun. You can run and jump, there’s movement,” said Claudia Bustamente, a traffic zebra. She hopes to stick with the job at least a year.
Since 2007, the zebras have also participated in fairs, festivals, and events, and lecture at schools against drunken driving. Sometimes they irk local police, as officers feel that the zebras aren’t true law enforcers, says coordinator Kathia Salazar. But surveys indicate that the zebras’ method of enforcing laws and spreading public-service messages is well received and well respected.

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