I asked my new friend Claude who lives here in New Zealand where I am visiting what the word Koha means. Being a beautiful writer, he sent me the following. With his permission, I share it with you.

Claude, thank you so much!


Koha? Well, to properly answer this, permit me to offer a quick course in Philosophical Maori 101.

Koha is a Maori word which predated money, but now has become NZ English as has Mana and Aroha, among others, which I will attempt to explain.

In isolation, Koha is a gift brought by the visitor to the people of the land, often food or treasures, and it is part of the process of Manakitanga which defines the realm of hospitality or the sharing of information. The Koha reflects the Mana of both the giver and the recipient. 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 Ponamu – the waters (Te Wai) of the treasured greenstone (ponamu), and their gift would be the ponamu greenstone, a taonga – a great treasure*.

Mana is the stature of the person, gained from land, ancestry and works of ones life. In your case, when you present your bio, you are giving an indication of your mana, but the ultimate determination of your mana is in person, when you are thrice greeted and perceived. The first greeting acknowledges your person, the second your soul and the third your spiritual being – God within you, all the spiritual power you carry with you as you walk on this earth. This is difficult to explain in English, because although we all instantly and inherently “read” people when we meet them, we lack language in English to articulate the multiple levels which we in fact instantly perceive. It gets more complicated because unless one is in ones clarity, that reading of the other gets mixed up with ones self. In traditional Maori this was all understood and worked out.

Prior to your talk, you will have been received by us, hence transform from manuhiri (visitor) to tangata whenua (person of the land – whenua means both land and placenta). When you begin to give your talk, you are of the host (of us, and behind us, the first and many subsequent peoples of our valley, with whose blessing we stand on the land), and the people who come to hear you become the manuhiri, the visitors. In your case, you shall transmit information (not feed them) and in acknowledgement of your mana, and reflecting each visitor’s mana, they shall make a koha to you. You give them your knowledge, they acknowledge you with koha. But they are not paying you, even though after the talk, you possess what they have gifted you. Also, by your speaking in our Bard Hall, you will add to its mana, as have speakers before you, and this mana shall embed both in peoples hearts, but also in the very walls of the building. It’s why an ancient abbey feels more sacred that a freshly built new church.

In its purity, the level of koha would vary by each person, reflecting what they can afford, the regard they hold for you and the value they place on your information. Before money the gifts would be either noa (such as food) or a taonga (a treasure, such as carved greenstone). Now it is deemed acceptable to use money. However, the principles of establishing the amount based on mana is not well understood nowadays and to make it simpler, a tradition of setting a recommended amount tends to evolve. Most events at our place seem to be $10 in a bowl at the front door.

This may seem the same as a ticket price, but because it carries with it the ancient traditions of something greater, it has a different character to it. Among other things, we find people who normally command large speaking fees will return multiple times to places like ours with their humble proceeds because the relationship is more refreshing. It’s somehow more balanced. In a curious way, it solves Socrates problem with the sophists who taught for money, not love. With koha you speak for aroha, and koha is gifted out of aroha.

Aroha is the word for love, but it means more than in typical English. My colleague Ruth Makuini Tai writes: The word Aroha holds a premier position within the Maori language of Aotearoa New Zealand. Maori language and practise holds the memory of a time when the force of Aroha was understood and respected by all. Aroha is the creative force behind all dreams. Aroha defines great leadership, ensures personal success, inspires us to go the extra mile. Aroha means Love. However when we explore its roots Aroha yields a profound message about love that is not widely understood.

ARO is thought, life principle, to pay attention, to focus, to concentrate

RO is inner, within, introspection

HA is life force, breath, energy

OHA is generosity, prosperity, abundance, wealth

When people write to you, and sign it Arohanui, they are using the word Aroha and Nui. Nui means large, great, intense, many, plentiful, abundant, important, and openly, in public. So while it might be translated as lots of love, in fact in Maori it means much more

All of this, and much more, is within the word Koha which is why I thought it helpful to explain. While NZ may look similar to the US with its McDonalds franchises and Starbucks on every corner, under the surface it is different. Among other things, the Maori language is a legal language in the country, and by introducing it into British Common Law, many of the oppressive principles which you identify, find an antidote in Maori.

For example, sovereignty means to over-reign, to reign from above, and is fear-based… “my foot on your head, my sword at your neck, you will submit and swear fealty”… Law enforced by life, liberty and property. Break the kings’ law and you are executed, imprisoned or fined. In contrast, the Maori equivalent word is Rangatiratanga where ranga comes from the root of the word “to weave”, Tira is a choir, and Tanga an organised group of people. Therefore the Maori principle of leadership is more akin to the conductor of a choir, getting everyone to sing off the same sheet of music… in harmony, in synchrony, in tune. Maori leaders are not elected for a term – the person best to lead, leads. If the leadership fails, the people simply walk away and the leader’s mana vanishes like dust in the wind. Since mana is everything, this has a powerful influence on keeping leaders true. You were witness to Dame Te Ata’s passing last week, the highest of mana as 1/3 of the population of Maori of this nation attended her funeral. For better or worse (and in my view, falsely because it was driven by an orchestrated campaign of fear), George Bush claimed high mana after 9/11. But the hollowness of his leadership became apparent, his mana diminished, and under Maori tradition, he would be a gibbering monkey at the edge of the village, ignored by all, not still the President.

And, what makes this more fun is that Queen Victoria guaranteed these leadership rights in the Maori version of the Treaty of Waitangi not just to Maori leaders and their political organisation (hapu) but to nga tangata katoa o Nu Tirani (the people all – of New Zealand). In other words, we have the principles of harmony embedded in our founding documents, something we slowly are working into the national consciousness.