Koha is an example of the reciprocity which is a common feature of much Māori tradition, and often involves the giving of gifts by visitors to a host marae. Traditionally this has often taken the form of food although taonga (treasured possessions) are also sometimes offered as koha.
In modern times money is most commonly given to offset the costs of hosting a hui. For the benefit of non-Māori unfamiliar with the custom some marae may suggest a particular amount to be given as koha although this amount may not meet the actual costs associated with the meeting.
In isolation, Koha is a gift brought by the visitor (manuhiri) to the people of the land (tangata whenua), often food or treasures, and it is part of the process of Maanakitanga which defines the realm of hospitality or the sharing of information. The Koha reflects the Mana of both the giver and the recipient. This concept of mana is difficult to understand. In effect the gift reflects on the one hand what the giver is able to give, and on the other, the esteem they hold of the person or group they are making the gift to. Thus, for example, two people may give the same gift (let us say the same amount of money), but one of the two people making their gift is wealthier. Either they then diminish their own mana by not giving the appropriate amount, or they insult the receiver because they are suggesting they do not hold the host in high regard. When both parties understand what is going on, the koha plays an important part in cementing good relations (or intentionally not). When one of the parties is ignorant, koha can be fraught with unintended consequences.
From a very practical standpoint, if visitors came a calling, the host was expected to provide hospitality of food, beds in the communal sleeping hall and appropriate attention and honours – something that could be difficult in lean times when food was scarce, so a visiting party might offer food as Koha. Or perhaps the visitor came from South Island – called in Maori Te Wai Pounamu – the waters (Te Wai) of the treasured greenstone (pounamu), and their gift would be the pounamu greenstone, a taonga – a great treasure, such a gift would bring great honour to both giver and receiver. See this University web page for more information on the protocol associated with koha today.
While called traditional usage, the practice of koha remains active today in New Zealand, and Maori make it clear to Pakeha that if they intend to use Maori words, the spirit of them should not be debased. Thus when a Pakeha asks for or gives Koha, Maori say that it should be in accordance with the traditional usage. Otherwise, call it donation, payment or some similar English word that does not carry the same deep meanings. While Te Reo Maori (the Maori language) is a legal language in New Zealand, and may be used by anyone, the language is regarded as a treasure and Maori expect that it be used correctly and properly.
In wider current New Zealand society the term has a broader meaning more closely associated with the English term donation. When you are invited to a "free" event you may be asked for koha, usually in the form of a "gold coin donation" (i.e., $1 or $2 - this being the colour of these coins - rather than smaller silver coin denominations).
In New Zealand English it is becoming more frequent to refer to the small gifts, or more commonly food such as biscuits, desserts or cakes, which are presented when visiting friends or family as koha. Such gifts are common custom among New Zealanders, especially in rural areas. This custom, if not rooted in Māori custom (tikanga), has been reinforced by it.
- Potlatch, a similar practice among some First Nations peoples of west coast North America
- Kula, a similar practice in Papua New Guinea
- Moka, a similar practice in the Mt. Hagen area of Papua New Guinea
- Sepik Coast exchange, a similar practice in the Sepic Coast of Papua New Guinea
- Gift Economy, koha and similar practices of reciprocal giving are forms of gift economies.
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