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Koha: More than a gift

Friday 30th May 2014

By paying a “Koha” sometimes you’re able to get into a gig, go to a yoga class, and even get a tattoo. But what does “Koha” really mean?

Illustration: Francis Gordon

Put simply, Koha is a Māori term for a gift. It’s a way in which one can express gratitude in the form of a physical gift, like money, food, and bottles of fancy wine; or something intangible, like some great advice. But if you stop at a simple definition then you miss out on all the colour and meaning of the tradition of giving a Koha.

For the uninitiated, let’s take an imaginary trip back in time and explore a cultural definition. Imagine your village are hosting a great celebration and guests from all across the land are welcomed onto your marae. Towards the conclusion of the welcoming ceremony, a gift of food - lets say, a few sizeable baskets of kumara is offered to you and your village (the hosts) on behalf of the guests. On a practical level, this Koha is a contribution towards the catering for the event. On a deeper, and somewhat more personal level, Koha can also symbolise an expression of deep gratitude and affection.

But if you stop at a simple definition then you miss out on all the colour and meaning of the tradition of giving a Koha.

Along with the gift of kumara, a few solemn words are spoken, somewhere along the lines of ‘From my people to yours, we present you with this gift of food as a symbol of our gratitude for your hospitality and deep respect for this occasion’. The welcome ceremony moves towards conclusion and everyone mingles, all happy to see one another and looking forward to eating some delicious kumara whilst commenting on how lovely the woven baskets are.

There are three things that form the Koha; firstly, the obvious contribution of the kumara; secondly, the baskets woven with precise detail and great care; and finally, those deep and meaningful intangible words that emotionally gift-wrapped it all. Certainly a gift you and your fellow tribespeople won’t be forgetting anytime soon.

As a parting gift consider this bit of free advice as my Koha to you. If you are in a situation where you are required to give a Koha then give what you can or feel is appropriate to the person (or persons) taking into consideration the circumstances or situation you’re in. Take a moment to reflect on it.

Koha is a personal expression of your gratitude. If you’re on the door accepting Koha donations into your indie pop gig on a Wednesday night and some really eager kids rock on up with a sack of kumara say to them ‘Tena koutou mo tenei Koha tino miharo’ (thank you for your thoughtful gift) and welcome them in. Don’t point to your A4 handwritten sign that reads “Koha Entry - Gold Coin Donation” because you should have written  “Entry Fee - Gold Coin Donation” and let Inland Revenue take care of the rest.

When it comes to Koha, it really is the thought that counts.

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