Czechia’s “zmijovka” hat: The West Africa connection


The “zmijovka” hat is a common sight in Czechia in winter, particularly in the country. But it turns out it is also popular in parts of West Africa, where it is sometimes called a “Cabral hat” after anti-colonial leader Amílcar Cabral, who frequently wore one. The forthcoming documentary Beyond a Knit Cap focuses on this fascinating connection. And its director, former FAMU student Violette Deffontaines, says the inspiration came from the streets of Marseille.

“I was wearing my zmijovka and I met some Senegalese people. They stopped me and we started taking and they said it was a revolutionary cap for them. So it’s how I got the idea.”

How come it’s a revolutionary cap for people from Senegal?

Amílcar Cabral | Photo: Wikimedia Commons,  public domain

“Because Amílcar Cabral was a leader in the war of independence in Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde. And he wore it the ‘60s, and his soldiers too.

“They call it the Cabral cap. It’s like a symbol of this revolutionary, independence movement.”

So if an African person wears the cap are they signaling some political affiliation, that they are a Marxist or something like that?

“Well, I discovered that it’s more complex than that. Because in Senegal, in Dakar, it’s also worn a lot by Mouride people – it’s like the Muslim Brotherhood.

“So this cap is everywhere in Dakar and it has different meanings. One is political, the pan-African movement. For instance, Fadel Barro is standing for president and he wears this cap, as the heritage of Cabral.

“And the other symbol is religious – it’s more like they belong to this Brotherhood: the Mouride.”

Source: Official website of the film 'Beyond a Knit Cap'

How did Cabral originally come to find one of these caps? How did he start wearing one, do you know?

“That’s what the film is about. I’m investigating how come this rural Czech cap ended up in Africa.

“So maybe I won’t reveal it [laughs]. I’m making research and that’s the whole purpose of the film.”

Today if people in West Africa wear these hats, are they imported from Czechia? Or from Slovakia, where they are called “budajka”?

Zmijovka | Photo: Hana Slavická,  Radio Prague International

“Most of them are imported from Strakonice [South Bohemia], from the Tonak factory in the Czech Republic.

“Ninety percent of the production there is exported to Dakar. And I would say that 90 percent of the caps are imported from there.

“Some are handmade, and some are also from Turkey, I discovered.”

I associate these hats with the cold winters here in Czechia. And I’m kind of surprised that people would be wearing them in what I presume are relatively hot countries.

“It was also my first astonishment, and also a reason why I came to investigate [laughs].

“But clothes are first a response to need – so the cold – but there also other needs, like protection from the sun, and sand.

“And after these practical reasons there are a lot of symbolical reasons why to wear clothes, so that’s also an explanation.

“I want to study how clothing is a language and can reveal important parts of history and also parts of human nature.

“And I want to encourage questioning about what is surrounding us in everyday life. Because it says a lot about us.”

Photo: Ondřej Tomšů,  Radio Prague International

The zmijovka hat gets its name from zmije, the Czech word for viper, the snake whose markings its zigzag design is said to resemble. The two-tone headwear typically comes in black and white but other colours can stand in for the black. It is associated with butchers, including at pig-killings, but is worn by many people in the Czech countryside in particular. In Slovakia it is called budajka after Ján Budaj, a political dissident who wore the hat while working as a manual labourer and later when addressing crowds during the 1989 revolution. Beyond a Knit Cap should be released in 2026, says director Violette Deffontaines.