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 (manuhiri) to a host marae. Traditionally this has often taken the form of food although taonga (treasured possessions) are also sometimes offered as koha, and in modern times money.
The koha reflects the mana of both the giver and the recipient, reflecting what the giver is able to give, and the esteem they hold of the person or group they are making the gift to - and hence plays an important part in cementing good relations, and it taken very seriously, with misunderstanding having the potential to give offence.
One of the more recognised authorities on this subject and related Maori principles can be found in Tikanga Māori: Living by Māori Values by Hirini Moko Mead, Sidney M. Mead, See Koha - Page 181
This ten page explanation begins on page 181: "When a person makes a presentation of a gift to another they may use the words 'he koha tena naku ki a koe' (that is a gift, which I present to you) (Williams 1967:123) or 'tenei te taonga ki a koe' (this is a highly prized object that is presented to you) (Firth 1959:315). Or they may use other words. But some prized object is being transferred from one group or individual to another group or individual. The transaction is either the beginning of a new exchange relationship with others or it is part of a series begun long ago by a member of the whanau, hapu or iwi. Firth (1959:423) stated that the transaction of making a gift appeared on the surface to be a spontaneous act based on free will and choice and given in good grace. But he implied that exchanging gifts in the Maori world occurred within a cultural and historical context (although he did not use these words). Instead he focused upon obligations, and he thought that there was a compulsion to give something and there was an obligation upon the recipient to accept the gift 'in good grace'."
The proper way
An important point to make about gift giving is that there is a tradition behind it, there are tikanga involved in the exchange and there are many precedents as models of proper ways of behaving. While much has changed since contact with another culture, some of the more traditional forms of gift giving are still being practiced and the same customary practices apply. Another point is that gift giving is part of an exchange of gifts. A return gift is expected some time in the future. In some cases the return may be made fairly soon after the initial gift transaction. But often the recipient looks for an opportune occasion to make a return presentation and this may be many years later. Sometimes the object given as a gift is returned to the donor having fulfilled its purpose of cementing relationships or honouring a particular important guest. There are many instances of prized objects such as cloaks being returned years later to the family of the donors.
As can be seen, these short words, such as koha, carry with them cultural meaning and understanding that can easily elude the novice, but also in some cases elude contemporary tangata whenua (Maori people who remain connected to their ancestral land) who may not have been steeped in the lore of their hapū (tribe). Finally, it should be remembered that prior to contact with Europeans, Maori was an oral culture that did not use money.
This traditional practice of koha remains active today in New Zealand in Māori contexts. At hui, any money given helps with the actual costs associated with the meeting (noting that unlike pre-European times food is no longer completely gathered from the land and the sea, but instead may be bought at the supermarket). For the benefit of non-Māori unfamiliar with the custom some marae may suggest a particular amount to be given as koha, but it remains a freely given gift rather than a charge for services or a facilities.
In wider current New Zealand society the term has a broader meaning more closely associated with the English term donation. Participants at an event may be asked for "koha", often in the form of a request for "a gold coin donation" (i.e., $1 or $2).
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, a general term for societies built on practices of reciprocal giving
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