Elio Delgado Legón
HAVANA TIMES — Recently, I have read news reporting that Cuba now exports thousands of tons of charcoal to Europe at a fairly good price (and that the demand for this product is growing in the old continent) with a mix of happiness and nostalgia.
I have also seen the satisfaction of Cuban coal merchants over the good prices they get for their product and because its sale is guaranteed.
I feel happy because charcoal has become another product the country can export and, most importantly, because the day has finally arrived in which the hard work of the coal merchant can be remunerated as it deserves.
I also feel a certain degree of nostalgia, because I was once a coal merchant and endured the rigors of the job personally.
Since before I turned 13 and until the age of 15, I worked next to my father making coal during the “dead time” season, an eight to nine-month period between sugar harvests, in which agricultural workers (like my father) had a hard time finding a job.
We worked in one of the marabou fields three to four kilometers from my house. The fields were owned by an American, to whom we had to give one third of what we produced.
My father would go out into the filed very early in the morning and start cutting marabou plants with an axe and machete. I would go to school, come back home for lunch and head out to the field with my father’s lunch (which generally consisted of a plate of cornflour and a boiled sweet potato).
Throughout the afternoon, I would carry the firewood to the place where the bonfire was to be lit. Carrying the thorn-covered marabou branches (while my father continued to chop wood) was a strenuous task.
When we had gathered enough wood to make three or four “sacks” of coal, the hard work of setting up the bonfire began (a “sack” was the big jute sack in which raw sugar was packaged at refineries).
Then came the burning phase, which lasted several days and depended on the size of the bonfire. In the meantime, we would continue to cut and carry firewood to the next bonfire site.
If the process of making the coal as I’ve described it was difficult, what came afterwards was just as hard or harder: taking the coal out of the bonfire, cooling it, packaging it to load it on top of a mule my father owned and going out to sell it.
This last task was not easy because, even though every sack was sold at a very low price, not many people bought entire sacks. Even though it was ultimately more expensive, most people preferred to buy small amounts for their daily or weekly needs. Many a time, after walking around the entire town, we had to approach re-sellers who bought it at lower prices, for it was preferable to do this than to go back home with the sack of coal and without any money to buy food with.
I always remember how a woman who bought a sack of coal said to my father: “It’s a crime having that child make coal.” My father explained to her that I hadn’t quit school.
That is why, when I see how well coal is selling these days, I cannot but feel joy and satisfaction, as well as some nostalgia and sadness, recalling those hard times I went through alongside my father.