Joel Strauss (aka “masharubu”) lives in Tanzania (aka “Bongoland”) and needed data recovery. He wrote about his data recovery journey on his Google Group blog. His article is reposted below with his permission.


Some days you eat the bear; some days the bear eats you. —Preacher Roe, baseball pitcher

On 20 Nov 2022 thru sheer stupidity and carelessness, I dropped a hard disk drive (HDD) that contains almost all my music, thousands of albums. Among them, files of the first music I ever heard in my life, Bix Beiderbecke and Frankie Trumbauer; the first album I bought with my own money when I was 12 years old, Jazz Goes to College by Dave Brubeck; the first Charlie Parker album I got at 16; the Miles Davis albums I used to study by at college. The drive wouldn’t open. I doubted it could be repaired but it might—just might—be possible to retrieve the music and assorted documents—11,000 folders with 126,000 files totaling 1.1 terabytes (TB).

This is what the inside of that HDD looks like. The files are on the disk/platter. My guess—it’s only a guess—when I dropped it, the impact dislodged the actuator, axis, arm and read/write head. If the disk is still intact, the files may be retrievable with the right equipment.

inside of a hard drive

In the West, you look in the Yellow Pages…sorry I’m a dinosaur…you look online for the nearest external hard drive repair shop. But this is Bongoland. You ask people you know if they know a fundi (technician/craftsman) who might be able to retrieve files from a busted hard drive. And the people you ask may know some other people and eventually you may get a name and a contact. Which is what I did. Among others, I called Ms EE, whose sister works with a fundi named Adam. I gave Sanga the HDD to give to Ms EE who gave it to her sister to give to Adam. Yeah he might be able to retrieve the files. All this took five days.

I call Adam on Day 6: Yes, he has the drive but he’s on another job; he’ll give a “full report” tomorrow at 10 a.m. Day 7: Nothing at 10 a.m. or 11 a.m. so I call him at noon. He can’t talk right now but he’ll call back in 30 min. and adds he’s hopeful this can be fixed. Nothing the rest of the day. Day 8: Adam works on the hard drive all day; he fails. Not only fails, but claims the files are irretrievable and gives the HDD to Ms EE’s sister who gives it to Ms EE who gives it to Sanga who brings it to me. It is now 6 December. Being suborn as a Missouri mule, I take the HDD to my former colleague and IT hotshot, GDP. He tells me he used to do data retrieval; unfortunately he no longer has that sort of equipment but he’ll see what he can do.

Time passes…in fact over a month passes. GDP is still looking for and failing to find the equipment he needs. Meanwhile my daughters, D#1 and D#2, have come for a visit. If worse comes to worst, they will take the HDD to the land of round doorknobs and maybe some American techie can work digital juju to retrieve the music. Sure enough, worse comes to worst—GDP returns the HDD. D#1 and D#2 depart with it on 31 January.

I’ll skip the narrative details and put down the facts, ma’am, just the facts:
3 Feb D#2 contacts her techie friend Greg who says he’ll look at it.
4 Feb D#2 gives the HDD to Greg.
5 Feb Greg says he can’t fix it.
6 Feb D#2 contacts Salvage Data in Cleveland Ohio. They will do a free assessment and pay the FedEx shipping. If they can fix it, it may cost as little as $300 but more likely $600-1800.
14 Feb Salvage Data informs D#2 they have the drive. Expect an evaluation in two days.
16 Feb Salvage Data can fix it and it will cost “only” $1375! D#2 tells them: forget it.
Twelve days pass. Salvage Data does not respond to D#2’s emails or phone calls.
1 Mar Salvage Data will charge a $40 ransom fee to send back the busted HDD.
D#2 pays the $40 ransom…ten days pass.
11 Mar Salvage Data finally returns the busted HDD.
Meanwhile D#2 finds another outfit in LA, Data Recovery, with flat rates of $300, 400 or 500.
11 Mar D#2 sends the busted HDD to LA along with a new HDD to transfer the files.
12 Mar Data Recovery informs D#2 they have received the two HDDs.
15 Mar Data Recovery sends D#2 a contract to sign. It has several ifs, buts and maybes. I calculate the total could run as high as $720. D#2 says she will ask for clarification
16 Mar Data Recovery says there’s $100 fee because the HDD had been opened (in Cleveland) but it probably will be a simple $300 recovery. I tell D#2 sign the contract and let’s boogie.
22 Mar Data Recovery sends a list of all files retrieved. D#2 sends it to me. I spot check some of the biggest folders. It seems to be all there. I send D#2 the following message: THEY DID IT.
22 Mar Data Recovery sends the bill—$100 opening fee+ $300 recovery + $20 shipping to D#2 for a total of $420. Was it worth $420 to have all my music again? You better believe it.

But wait…another hurdle. We have to get the HDD from California to Bongoland. Plus two unbreakable solid state drives (SSDs) that will back up everything to ensure this ain’t never gonna happen again. We decide not to ship—the new HDD might break or the package gets stolen. No, these must be hand-carried. I send out six messages to people I know in the US who might be coming to TZ in the near future. One has just been here; two will be coming but probably not anytime soon; two aren’t coming even anytime soon; and one doesn’t reply.

Meanwhile, I ask D#2 to copy the 1.1TB of files on the HDD to one of the SSDs just to be on the safe side. Another problem. D#2 has a Mac. The files are all PC. I call GDP. Is it possible to copy PC files from an HDD to an SSD using a Mac? Yes, here are the 257 steps to take. I send the info to D#2 and suggest that if the very old PC she used before the Mac still works, she might copy the files with it. She pulls out the old PC and does a trial with some small folders. It works. Now to the biggie—almost 1TB of music. Slowly-slowly it copies Abdullah Ibrahim, Bix, Dave Brubeck, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Jessica Williams, etc…etc…etc. The PC finishes the entire music folder. That’s when it gets too tired and stops working. It’s now 29 March. D#2 will try to find a PC to borrow and complete the copying.

Meanwhile, since none of my US contacts are coming, I ask GDP to find out if anyone from his project HQ in Bethesda Maryland might be visiting TZ in the near future. On 31 Mar, GDP tells me one of his TZ colleagues is in the US and will return Tues 4 Apr. What’s his name, address, phone and email? I need to ask him to bring the hard drives and D#2 has to send them to him by FedEx. And is he departing the US or arriving in Dar on 4 Apr? If the latter, we have about two days. Once I get the name, BK, and phone number, I call. Fortunately BK leaves on 4 Apr and agrees to bring the hard drives. Also fortunately he’s near Phoenix, 650 miles (1050km) from Oakland. And even more fortunately, it turns out I did some work with his older sister in the late 1990s. BK and I are practically related. GDP speculates that cosmic forces are at work.

D#2 still hasn’t found a PC to copy the last files. I tell her not to worry. Send them to BK. I will copy them on the SSD with my PC when the hard drives arrive. D#2 has to go to a wedding so D#1 steps in, contacts BK and they make arrangements. D#1 sends the hard drives. On 2 Apr BK sends an email that he has received the hard drives. The A Team gets it done.

And then I find out it’s a hoax. It’s like Paul Newman and Robert Redford in The Sting, only this sting is by cunning aforethought D#1 and D#2. Reread the sentence: “D#2 has to go to a wedding so D#1 steps in, contacts and BK and they make arrangements.” It is true that D#2 has to go to a wedding; she didn’t mention she’s the maid of honor and the wedding is in France. It is also true that D#1 steps in and contacts BK. But she tells BK to disregard every message I send him and just play along. She’s made her own arrangements. In fact, she had started making those arrangements as far back as January.

At 5.50am on 4 April D#1 walks into my office and hands me the hard drives in person. I’m an old geezer. I can’t remember exactly what I said but they were words to the effect: Holy Moly! This kind of shock can kill me. But it was one of the best surprises ever—D#1 AND my music.

I opened the HDD and saw the 11,000 folders I had ruined thru stupidity and carelessness on 20 November. All 126,000 files appeared. Now the question was which song do I listen to first? Ah yes—the perfect song by the perfectly unique Mose Allison. Click…

Sunset glow from a hill
Let it flow take your fill
Such a perfect moment
Mona Lisa smile
One such perfect moment
Makes it all worthwhile.

Some days the bear eats you but tonight let us feast on bear steak.

—Apr 2023

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